Government agencies have had to adapt to the “new normal” brought on by COVID-19 – new ways of working, new consumer behaviors, and new business reorganization. But the key to success is updated modernization, according to several chief information officers (CIO).

Before the pandemic, IT modernization was the plan for the future for many Federal agencies. However, when COVID-19 hit and workers were forced into remote environments, agencies had to adapt quickly and put their plans for modernization into work. But after more than a year, and with the continued reliance on hybrid or remote work environments by Federal agencies, new IT modernization strategies are needed.

For the Department of Energy (DoE), the first initial consisted of a unified, “focus to getting people to remain or to become more productive through the use of digital tools and remote collaboration,” said Ann Dunkin, CIO for the DoE, during ATARC’s CIO Virtual Summit Jan. 25.

However, that led to silos of modernization practices across the agency.

“So, now we need to look at IT modernization differently and scale these practices across the agency as a whole,” Dunkin said. The DoE is currently working on a playbook illustrating how they plan on creating a unified modernization strategy and plan to share this with other agencies in the future.

In addition to shifting modernization plans, agencies have also ensured compliance with recent cyber-related directives and guidance. Jamie Holcombe, CIO for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), explained that while cyber compliance is crucial moving forward, it can also be challenging for agencies attempting to modernize their systems. And that is because many are under the impression that being cyber compliant implies ‘NO’ risks.

“It’s not about having no risk. It’s about understanding your risks and vulnerabilities and then having a contingency plan for what to do when faced with possible exposure,” Holcombe said. As part of their modernization strategies, Federal agencies must incorporate good cyber training and hygiene practices.

However, Tina Donbeck, the CIO for the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), explained that another essential key to a successful modernization strategy moving forward is ensuring you do what works for your mission needs. The DFC, compared to agencies like the DoE and the USPTO, is significantly smaller. Therefore, Donbeck explained, they won’t have the same resources as larger agencies to respond to specific directives or incorporate digital upgrades.

The focus for agencies like DFC must then be on “getting the right people, skills, and tools in place to be effective in our mission and also be efficient cyber defenders.”

Dunkin agreed with Donbeck’s assessment, adding that while small and large agencies can share ideas on modernization and cyber compliance, as the DoE plans to do, there is no one-size-fits-all in the government.

“Agencies need to balance cyber compliance and digital updates with their mission need as a primary focus,” Dunkin said.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.