Amid the widespread misery and dislocation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the few bright spots has been on the Federal technology front, where the imperative to adopt a range of remote processes including widespread telework has helped push Federal agency operations farther into the future.

That was the message from Federal CIOs today at General Dynamics Information Technology’s Emerge 2021 conference focused on digital modernization.  Those pandemic-driven changes, the CIOs said, appear to be sticking.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), that shift has taken the form of a foundational shift in the organization’s use of telehealth services. Last month, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the agency averaged 45,000 telehealth visits a day this February, up from 2,500 a day last March before the pandemic.

“Things like telework, telehealth, tele-counseling, tele-hearings were always on our radar. It was something we wanted to do, and we had established some pretty good nascent telehealth capabilities, but the COVID 19 pandemic really forced us into the future, probably by about five years,” VA CIO Dominic Cussatt said during a panel discussion at today’s GDIT event. “It forced our hand to really get out there and really exercise our telehealth capabilities.”

Beyond connectivity – which continues to be a problem for veterans in underserved areas – Cussatt said the biggest area in which COVID-19 helped push both clinicians and patients forward is in their comfort level with telehealth communications.

At the Department of Education, the Enterprise Technology Directorate Federal Student Aid (FSA) office has been using a virtual assistant named AIDAN to use AI in order to lessen burdens on agency call centers, and enable students and lenders to get information quickly.

“I’d like to highlight that COVID certainly was an accelerant,” Mia Jordan, CIO of the FSA Enterprise Technology Directorate, said during the panel discussion. “What it allowed us to do was to really, I think, become on par with what’s happening in private industry. … [AIDAN] took a significant burden off of our call centers which is key, but it also just really transformed again how the business was able to quickly adapt.”

Jordan said AIDAN, and other AI and robotic process automation (RPA) projects her office is working on, focus not only on public-facing entities and customer support, which she identified as important, but also to help support back-of-office staff. She pointed to uses in both the acquisition process and on the financial side, keeping track of transactions and staying on top of budget requests.

Jordan noted that Federal chief financial and chief acquisition officers are often asked “to do more with less,” and said the agency wants to make sure they have the tools to do so.

“I’m thoughtful about the enterprise,” she said. “While the mission is critical and our customers are critical, the business itself, the back-office business that helps run the mission needs equal attention, Jordan said.

Cussatt said VA is in the process of utilizing AI, RPA, and machine learning technology to help automate some of the technical support ticketing processes and cut down on the amount of time that process takes.

Both Cussatt and Jordan offered advice for agencies working on modernization efforts, including building upon scalable processes and having those difficult discussions with leaders about investing in modernization.

“Don’t stop with building out your scalable platforms,” Cussatt said. “Expand, build on those platforms, see what you can do within them.”

“It has been difficult in the past to have a conversation with your business leaders about investing in the cloud, because it didn’t really mean anything before now, certainly with the government showing that it has the ability to scale and to change and adapt rather quickly,” Jordan said.

“It really does help change the discussion that now you know your investment in the cloud and your journey to the cloud from an executive perspective is about how you keep your business running,” she added. “It’s not about an application rationalization … it is about the business, right, … and the flexibility of your business.”

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.