Montgomery County (Pa.) CIO Anthony Olivieri began preparing for a telework environment as early as January.

Sep 29 2020

How Agencies Moved Quickly to a Secure Telework Environment

Faced with a pandemic, states, counties and cities made the shift to remote work — in a hurry.

Located just north of Philadelphia, Montgomery County, Pa., was already weighing options for a flexible work environment when the pandemic struck, bumping workers out of county offices. County CIO Anthony Olivieri and his department began examining the potential impacts of the pandemic on government agencies in January, and they determined they could ramp up existing agreements to fulfill their needs.

“Our meetings now are virtual — meetings for budget, training and everything else,” Olivieri says. “Our everyday meetings have moved to a virtual platform, and we rely heavily on feedback from our users. We reach out to our user base and collect feedback regularly in a survey, and then we adjust to make sure that they have what they need.”

Olivieri is not alone in his rapid shift to a virtual work environment. City and state governments, as well as counties, could not simply shut down in the face of the emergency. Collaborative technology has been the crucial component in making sure that governments can continue to serve their constituents — even if statehouses, courthouses and other office buildings have closed their doors. State and local governments depended on tech for their teams to continue to work together, and they needed solutions that were scalable and secure.

“IT has kept governments running over the past several months,” says Meredith Ward, director of policy and research for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

The challenge has been twofold: scaling remote work and securing remote work, Ward says. “Some states offered remote work or telework, but no state worked remotely 100 percent of the time prior to March 2020.”

Technology to Support Collaboration Is Key

“We took a very hard look at our virtual desktop environment,” Olivieri says of Montgomery County. “We made sure that we had sufficient, up-to-date training material. We made sure that our help desk and developers, as well as our admin staff, were positioned to be working from home, all the way down to deploying cellphones.”

Olivieri and his team relied on Microsoft products, including SharePoint and Dynamics, to facilitate their remote work environment.

“We’re leaning on SharePoint heavily to get a lot of this information out there, to keep people informed and to help businesses that work with the county,” Olivieri says. “The applications we’re using were all produced through the Dynamics platform, and people are able to process all of that information through Dynamics so they can report it back to all the agencies that need it.”

Anthony Olivieri, Montgomery County (Pa.) CIO
When something like this happens, your risk level for any kind of breach or threat goes up exponentially.”

Anthony Olivieri Montgomery County (Pa.) CIO

Olivieri has found that not only do the Microsoft tools allow for remote collaboration at scale, they do so without sacrificing security. “When something like this happens, your risk level for any kind of breach or threat goes up exponentially,” he says.

He allows that there’s a balance between security and usability: “We’ve been trying to make stronger network security, but in such a way that it will continue to enable and help our users who are working remotely be productive without locking them down so tight that they can’t do anything.”

Massachusetts Was Prepared for a Shift to Telework 

Telework is not new for government workers in Massachusetts. “Our technology organization has been engaged in telework-supporting systems for several years,” says Massachusetts CIO Curtis Wood, citing the traffic congestion and construction projects of Boston as motivating factors. In fact, the state had just reset the baseline for telework last year with refreshed policies.

“In parallel to that, my organization had undertaken a modern workplace environment initiative with Microsoft, where we moved heavily in a single-device model focused on mobility and standardized on a Microsoft 365 platform,” Wood says.

With the onset of the pandemic, then, Massachusetts was well positioned to rapidly shift to supporting a remote workforce. “We were well on our way,” Wood says. “We had a good foundation established. At least some of the workforce was used to working remotely. We had the infrastructure to support it.”

Nevertheless, going from, at most, a few thousand remote workers to 22,000 almost overnight stretched the IT organization.

To make everything work, Wood set an overarching goal of simplification. “We have had a tendency to buy a lot of technology over the years,” Wood says. “Security is a perfect example. We tend to focus too much on buying products all the time — but we want to look at solutions.” Wood’s team committed to a Microsoft framework and is using Azure Active Directory to ensure secure access to resources.

READ MORE: Find out how state governments have addressed legacy IT in a time of crisis.

Strong Network Infrastructure Supports Remote Work 

When Portsmouth, N.H., moved its employees to remote work, the biggest challenge the city faced was finding enough resources for end users, says Alan Brady, Portsmouth’s IT manager.

Much of the other work needed to support remote work had recently been completed. Over the past two years, the IT department implemented a Dell hypervisor, providing fast connections to remote workers, and all-new network infrastructure from Ubiquiti.

The upgrades were completed in December and January, just in time to support the ballooning requirements for remote work capacity during the pandemic.

10x

The factor by which Portsmouth, N.H., increased available bandwidth to support remote work by city employees during the pandemic

Source: Portsmouth IT Manager Alan Brady

“With the infrastructure changes that were made, end users were able to remotely log in to their computers without any major issues,” Brady says. “We were able to get everybody back online.” 

Because Portsmouth employees generally worked on Microsoft desktops while in the office, Brady and his team had no laptop stockpile to provision.

“Fortunately, because we had two-factor authentication, we felt very comfortable giving remote access to personal computers — something we’re usually against as a policy,” he says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how to protect remote workers from phishing attacks.

An Evolution in How Government Work Gets Done

Even when the pandemic relents, some of the changes to government IT provisioning are likely to endure, Ward says.

“As far as ‘the big comeback’ — as many of our CIOs are calling it — I don’t expect that states will return to normal or pre-COVID-19 work conditions anytime soon,” Ward says.

The success of remote work will likely lead to broader acceptance in the long term as well, even when the threat of infection recedes.

“The traditional state government culture has prevented many states from expanding work-from-home in the past, mostly because of fears that there would be hiccups in operations; the ‘it won’t work’ mentality,” NASCIO’s Ward says.

“The past few months have essentially proved that theory wrong, as the business of state government has kept running,” she adds. “It can be done.”

Photography By Matthew Furman