The Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jun 24 2020

Q&A: Georgia Embraces Opportunities in Pivot to Mass Telework

CIO Calvin Rhodes details how the state's IT was ready to support remote working and what it means going forward.

Calvin Rhodes joined state government in January 2011 after a successful career in the private sector. Today, he serves as the CIO of Georgia. As head of the Georgia Technology Authority, Rhodes has responsibility for supporting statewide IT initiatives.

Like other state CIOs, Rhodes rushed to support widespread telework across the state and outfit emergency management operations with technology to help them mount an unprecedented public health response. GTA’s strong interagency relationships and advance planning helped him meet both goals, which he discussed as a virtual panelist during the Midyear Conference of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

StateTech spoke with Rhodes after NASCIO Midyear for this exclusive look at some of the challenges and opportunities he uncovered in supporting the state’s pandemic response.

STATETECH: Could you tell us a bit about how Georgia and the Georgia Technology Authority pivoted to telework during the current crisis? What were the challenges and opportunities you faced?

RHODES: We already had an agency CIO meeting scheduled. We brought in that group and tried to give them some insight into some of the things we need to be thinking about and planning for. Some of the questions to me were like, "Okay, well, over the next month, we need to be doing X to get ready for this." I said, "But I think we really need to be thinking in terms of days to a week."

Then, some information hit the governor's desk the following day. They sent the message out that we needed to prepare to go remote, and then within probably three or four days, each agency head was given the discretion to figure out who can work remotely.

So, the first challenge: We’ve had groups of people, I think, in some of the health agencies who have 3,000 workers that they have never allowed to work remotely. Simply from a hardware standpoint, I'm trying to get them ready to have something other than a desktop computer to take home. And like most states, we had to deal with VPN limitations and capacity issues. It was pretty amazing to see how quickly you can solve some of those challenges when you can get the right people to focus on a problem.

I think that was on a Thursday, and we knew we needed to increase not only the infrastructure but also the licensing. There were some opportunities to do that from emergency licensing versus actually having to buy perpetual licenses. For some of our service partners, we were able to put a request in on Thursday, fly in additional components on Friday, and get them installed in the data center over the weekend. By Monday, we quadrupled our capacity. Those things just typically don’t happen that quickly.

And then every day, there was a laptop issue, where another agency needed a couple 100 here, another 100 or so there. One of the good things is that, with our OPEX model, there are hundreds of these that get refreshed every month. So, there's a stream of new devices coming in. We pretty quickly made a decision to stop a refresh and rob those items to push them out to the field for employees.

STATETECH: And then you had to support a new emergency response effort on top of that. What were the challenges there?

RHODES: We stood up mobile testing sites across the state. Those have eJump technology components that need access to a network there, and it needs to be secured. How best to get that bandwidth to the location that they selected? We got laptops with images on them out to Augusta University, which was standing up those testing sites. 

We have some great partners. The relationship with our emergency management group has always been strong, but we’re really getting to know another layer of individuals within those groups as they now have a need and are figuring out how to accomplish it.

As we’ve now moved deeper into this, there are fewer of those projects that have come up with a requirement to be addressed fairly quickly. Now, we see more operational items, from making sure that we modified our training for cybersecurity risk to actually pushing out modules. We warn about what to be on the lookout for — not only phishing emails but also invoices coming in for stuff that you really didn’t buy.

STATETECH: Now, you’ve got this workforce of teleworkers. Is that the new normal in Georgia? And you mentioned during the NASCIO Midyear Conference that you might expand to hiring virtual workers, being able to tap a workforce that isn’t even physically nearby anymore. What does that look like going forward?

RHODES: I'll answer that in a couple of ways. As for teleworking statewide, it’s really going to depend on the job function within an agency. For some federal agencies that have relaxed some of their rules, I can see where some of those might tighten back up in the future to where, say, someone dealing with tax information should really be in a controlled environment. So, those will be the exception if there’s some external force driving us to do something differently.

We also have to consider, is it likely that there’s a round two of this at some point? If you think about how long it typically takes a vaccine to be developed and tested, assuming that one can be, a normal timeline on that would be a couple of years. They’re going to try to do that more quickly, but more likely than not, we will have another round of this.

We’ll be able to much more easily operationalize this, where the next round will be more fine-tuning. I know that if I look just at my agency, at the group that has been working remotely two to three days a week previously, there’s really no issue with those groups of individuals. Then, I’d look to my finance and accounting group, which has never really worked remotely because they need to be able to touch paper. But they’re working remotely today, so we've found ways to get around some of those hurdles.

So, I do think it will be a hybrid plan. There’s real merit, and you’re going to see a shrinking footprint of the state government from a facilities standpoint. That won’t change going forward. And it really can help make the most of a smaller budget as you reduce some of those footprints.

There are a lot of great benefits to that. We’ve mentioned a few of them, like just being able to attract a worker who lives in a rural part of the state. The ability to come and work for our agency could be a huge benefit for somebody who’s got the skill set that we’re looking for and maybe they don’t have as many opportunities in the local industry. Atlanta, in the technology space, prior to this emergency, was at near full employment. In some of our cybersecurity fields, we had a negative employment rate here in Georgia. So, that can benefit us.

STATETECH: Are there decisions you made previously that really paid off in this situation, in addition to the laptops? 

RHODES: If you just look back to our accomplishments in our modernization effort, you won’t find servers that are older than 60 months in our environment. Desktops are refreshed every 60 months; laptops every 36 months. The process is in place to patch and update them. Our service desk handles most of our repairs. I think over 80 percent are done just on the phone, and no one ever needs to be dispatched.

Many of those items have been operationalized for years. Having a very standardized environment makes it easier to address. We almost had a lights-out data center before we even got to the discussion of embracing cloud solutions. So, if we have an issue with a server in a data center, 99 percent of the time, no one ever goes and touches that server; it’s done remotely by someone who may even be outside the state. And so, depending on what the issue is, they might need the Red Hat resource or someone who would be able to work on a particular issue. But all of that’s done remotely. So, we could care less if the person’s at home or in their office.

MORE ON STATETECH: Revisit our NASCIO Midyear Conference coverage. 

STATETECH: Do you have an IT wish list? And if so, does it look different now than it did a few months ago? Has this situation revealed any sort of things that you would like to implement?

RHODES: Had our entire enterprise been laptops, this would have been a much easier battle because that was truly the hardest item to tackle. The supply chain was beyond capacity. So, if you didn't already have something in the pipeline, those end-user computing devices have really just started arriving now.

So, we’ve had this long gap of time. We have a different agency that handles surplus for the state, so we called over to ask, "How much surplus do you have?" Because we could buy hard drives; they’ll destroy the hard drive of the old laptops. So, we were able to put literally hundreds of laptops back into the environment by simply buying the hard drive and doing some things like that.

Do we ever buy another desktop computer? Do we have as part of our business continuity planning that everybody really should have a laptop and a docking station, depending on what their job is? Where we have stood up some very specialized systems very quickly, we can at least learn from what we would normally take months to do. The procurement takes a lot of that time. How can we leverage and find a good balance? I think our procurement folks still want the safeguards and want to make sure that there’s competition. But we could find ways where we don’t need a year from the time that the business wants to accomplish something to when we’re actually able to deliver.

With our digital government group within GTA that’s responsible for our web presence, we completed an upgrade in our Drupal platform, and so we had a 1,100 percent increase in traffic within a period of a week or two, which has stayed there. It’s dropped off a little bit now, but it was vital that it was running in the cloud, and as that increase happened, we were able to spin up some additional capacity. Had that been two years ago, we could not have done that. You would not have been able to present the information to citizens.

With some of the Voice over IP solutions and all, to be able to push call centers remotely, that technology really helped us to be successful. The agencies that did not have a strong technology infrastructure have really struggled.

STATETECH: During your NASCIO Midyear panel, you said it demonstrated the power of digital communication for citizen services and citizen engagement. It sounds like that’s been a big success story there.

RHODES: The point I was trying to convey is around the mindset of our policymakers. Quite often, they reviewed IT as we’re processing transactions. And then all of a sudden it was like, "Okay, I need to make some decisions, and I need information to make those decisions." So, we worked with our health agencies to provide information and to predict where the next problem was going to be, based on the data. And we were visualizing it too, so it was not only information, but they could actually see it on a map. We’re putting up hospital beds here, and here’s where you need to locate them. Here’s where you need to be stationing ventilators because that’s where the issue is going to be.

So, I think that mindset is there forever. I said on the call that we’ve been reluctant to spend the dollars on some of the AI in different agencies, but you can get some real evidence that having that ability is going to be pretty important for states going forward.

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