COMMENTARY

How COVID-19 is driving a wave of innovation

As someone who started her career as a civil servant in 1986 and who retired from government service in 2017 to work in the private sector, I concur with the commonly held perception that the current crisis we’re experiencing due to the Coronavirus outbreak has created challenges to our country unlike any most of us have previously experienced.

But despite the unavoidable difficulties and personal tragedies that we are facing, my perception recently has slightly changed in one respect: I believe the government technology community, due to the critical role we have historically played in providing truly essential services to the country, is actively adjusting, learning and moving toward a boost in productivity and innovation due to this crisis.

The fact is we simply have no choice.

The country’s ability to recover from this crisis and maintain its productivity as a nation will depend on work performed by the U.S. government and the civilian and defense industrial base. As a community, we support business-critical processes at the state, local and federal levels ranging from medical support to Defense Department satellites and national security.

In short, we support the nation’s ability to function.

Our present situation presents the challenge of maintaining our productivity while protecting the health and well-being of our workforce. While crisis is a hard disciplinarian and change taskmaster, we have seen many early examples in which innovation, creativity and government/industry are not just helping but are changing the character of how we are productive. Here are a few:

* Within a matter of days, a public-facing national security agency procured, tested and evaluated an innovative, new “touchless” capability that would prevent workers there from having to touch ID cards and other documents from the citizens they serve.

* A federal healthcare agency quickly rolled out remote-delivered training using collaboration tools to instruct agency workers on critical functions they must continue to perform from home due to the pandemic. This is just one of many examples we have seen across government in which government agencies and industry partners have moved quickly to switch to telework scenarios for employees.

* In less than a week, a state government agency developed, designed and implemented a proof-of-concept and successful end user testing of a new cloud-based platform to allow state workers to log into a remote workspace and connect to agency applications securely and without the need for VPN.

* A federal civilian government agency worked with us to develop and deploy a new incident tracking tool to raise awareness of potential or confirmed exposure to COVID-19 to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Anyone in the agency who even thinks that they have been exposed to COVID-19 will use this important tracking tool to confidentially self-report their status.

These represent just a few early examples, and the list will continue to expand each day as we work together to address common challenges. We will see rapid adoption of technologies such as AI and machine learning to reduce dependence on an overburdened workforce, automating processes related to new challenges such as issuing millions of checks to businesses and citizens or providing healthcare services or security clearances.

Likewise, we will see the widespread embrace of new Zero Trust-directed security tools for on-premise and cloud-based assets and endpoints leveraging advanced and proven technologies to maintain security, identity and encryption all the way to the application level. And we will see the move to the cloud accelerate to provide secure, cloud-based collaboration tools that allow agencies to share the resources critical to meeting our current challenges with employees and with other agencies, including those at the state and local levels.

We should not minimize the challenge we’re facing at this unprecedented moment, but we also should not minimize the proven ability of our government workforce and industrial base to react decisively and creatively to overcome these challenges.

Collectively, we are essential to ensuring the continued success of the nation.

About the Author

Katharina McFarland, director on the board of SAIC, previously served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition.

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