Until recently CIOs, especially those at the state and local levels, had to worry about all sorts of computer viruses. Now however, they are beginning to face a new threat--one that doesn’t affect machines but people instead. In my conversations with numerous technology managers, it became clear that most disaster recovery plans (DR) and continuity of operations plans (COOP) do not adequately prepare localities for might lay ahead. Most plans address natural disasters and steps to restore business operations after an event. Some plans even contemplate that if their Emergency Operations Center were damaged, they would have an alternative location readied.
Pandemics are rarely mentioned or addressed – perhaps till now. What happens when a government is forced to shut down their buildings? What happens when key employees are either sick or too worried to show up for work, or a government is forced to close? How does government continue to operate in such emergencies?
For the first time, CIOs may be tasked with setting up virtual Emergency Command Centers where all key actors can view the same screens and communicate remotely. Video feeds can help ensure a near live experience. Telework, as controversial as it has been, may now be a work method of choice.
Preparing for the unthinkable starts with strategic planning and taking inventory of what the state or local government has by way of equipment such as laptops, tablets, and other mobile devices. Second, there needs to be a review of digital infrastructure – broadband requirements for all locations and users. What policies may need to change to recognize telework and emergency operations? Can our computer centers operate remotely and if so, for how long?
The CIO’s helpdesk will need to be re-examined so that it can offer more assistance via remote communications and have the ability to access and diagnose systems and devices remotely. The CIO will need to take inventory of the necessary software needed to better support remote operations.
While internal communications are worked out, there will be a need to design a “virtual city hall” where most, if not all business operations can be carried out online. This might include making online payments certain for services such as property tax, completing forms, making requests, obtaining licenses and permits, etc. Next, the CIO will need to see to it that there are programs aimed at training staff – and of course training may have to be online too.
The CIO has other critical roles to play which include data collection (information) mapping and report development and dissemination. GIS mapping is key to tracking where illnesses are being reported relevant to where people travel, work, and live. Medical records will need to be shared among various agencies. Public safety will need to rely on a virtual environment where dispatchers may have to operate at home.
Technology, no matter how smart, can’t reach the unconnected. This may be the greatest challenge. According to some reports, up to 19% of the US population does not have direct access to broadband and hence, to online services. These people will now need turn to a phone – landline or mobile device – to access services. Here technology can play an important role in making sure critical phone communications can be switched to remote workers.
Finally, now is the time to prepare and practice. It is imperative to review all policies and procedures, and as importantly practice and conduct simulations and drills. Even the best written plans fail when not practiced.
Whether the COVID-19 Virus leads to a localized or national pandemic, now is an excellent time to take a step back and begin to review current plans and procedures in case government facilities are forced to close. It is time to make sure the underlying digital infrastructure can withstand a dramatic increase in demand.
The letter “I” in the CIO title stands for information and yet many are viewed operationally as the chief infrastructure officer. Today’s challenges call for both information and infrastructure management. Yes, CIOs have a new virus to worry about, and yet the old (computer) viruses continue to pose real threats as well. Information is power, and as society continues to become increasingly dependent on technology, we must never forget that technology is nothing but a set of tools that require highly intelligent humans to be in control – at least for now.