In the past three months, Federal IT has emerged as the indispensable lifeline for delivery of government services to citizens in times of turmoil. As the nation finds its new footing on the road to recovery, MeriTalk is chronicling the untold stories of how Federal IT is paving the way. In the latest chapter of CIO Crossroads, we examine the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Pandemic Blazes Trail to Paperless Future – CIO Q&A  

The need for housing stands right alongside the requirements for food, water, and air in the hierarchy of needs for human survival. Since their beginnings in 1930s New Deal legislation, the programs that make up the core of HUD’s mission have performed a critical role in expanding home ownership, rental, and finance opportunities; improving housing standards; and spearheading economic development particularly in urban centers.

The agency’s 2019 statistics tell the story of HUD’s mission: 990,000 single-family home buyers helped; 2.6 million rental units provided or preserved; $7 billion of assistance provided to disaster victims; and $4 billion of insurance for hospitals and residential care facilities. With the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly closing in, the need for those programs only increased, and HUD didn’t skip a beat in tackling its mission.

First, the agency jumped to 90 percent-plus telework over two weeks, helped by increasing VPN bandwidth, dividing traffic between data centers, and adding cloud resources. Large-scale teleworking drills two weeks before employees headed home helped to cinch the transition.

But that’s just the beginning of the more enduring story: using proven and emerging technologies to fast-track the transition of traditional paper-based processes to digital formats, not only at HUD, but with the agency’s many outside partners. The drivers of that effort include online training for grantees, adoption of digital signature technology, and an electronic document delivery pilot.

In an exclusive interview with MeriTalk, HUD’s CIO Office team – Kevin Cooke, Principal Deputy CIO; Juan Sargeant, Deputy CIO – Infrastructure and Operations; and Helen McBride, Senior Advisor to the CIO/PDCIO – tell the story of the agency’s IT pandemic journey, and point the way ahead.

MeriTalk: Can you provide some metrics to illustrate the success of your work during the pandemic that tie to HUD’s mission? What’s the story of the last three months by the numbers?

Cooke: 90 to 95 percent of our staff are currently teleworking. We had a phased shutdown; it took us two weeks to get to full telework. In the early days, we were focused on providing the technology and tools our employees needed to work from home.

McBride: Once we went to full telework status, we saw a spike in Help Desk tickets in the first week or so, but that very quickly trailed off to the standard average. That told us we had done a decent job of preparing our employees with equipment, as Kevin said, to be home and to work productively. We also had prepared our network and tech support staff, to get them up and running online and productive. By Week 3, we were back to our pre-telework average in Help Desk calls and tickets.

Cooke: Up until about a week ago, each HUD department had to provide a daily report to the deputy secretary and secretary. We collected information from every program on a daily basis to identify any issues that needed escalation and ensure our staff had what they needed to do their jobs. The secretary, deputy secretary, and general deputy assistant secretaries also met weekly to discuss any issues. The combination of daily reporting and weekly senior management awareness allowed HUD to be very successful.

MeriTalk: Please tell us about a couple of your largest priorities and successes during the Covid-19 pandemic. What are you proudest of?

Cooke: The first priority was the safety of our people and making sure they did what they needed to do to take care of themselves and their family. We were very flexible with respect to telework, understanding that people have different workspaces and, in many cases, needed to work while also caring for kids.

The next priority was continuing our service to the public. This was not a shutdown situation; we needed to quickly recover and find a way to provide the services that HUD constituents expect to receive. That included making sure we could still get to our grantees and do necessary trainings with them around grants issues, technical assistance, etc.

Sargeant: Like many agencies, the way we previously constructed our disaster recovery was based on a limited number of individuals teleworking at one time. When we moved to max telework, we had to work with our technology vendors to look at our bandwidth availability and licenses, and adjust accordingly. We leveraged both of our data centers appropriately and increased our number of licenses to enable all of our users to access the network with limited impact.

We also stood up a separate device that enabled all executives that were responsible for disaster recovery or other pandemic-related efforts to gain access to the environment from a separate connection without impacting others’ operations. That was thanks to our partnerships with AT&T and Leidos.

Cooke: Juan is being modest about some of the work that was done. One of the things his team did very quickly was assess the number of ways to connect into our agency. They looked at the licenses we had available for each access method – whether it was our VPN, or Cisco, or Microsoft Office 365 – and then quickly determined if we needed to increase bandwidth. They then started the process with AT&T to increase the network bandwidth at our major sites, as well as divide the VPN traffic between data center A and data center B. They also provided our employees with guidance on when they need to log in to the VPN, and when they can do their work through Office 365. This let us cut down unnecessary traffic on the VPN and make sure it was available to the people who really needed it for their work.

Sargeant: We also worked closely with the business offices to understand their paper processes and the impact of those processes in our new remote world. We had to come up with different solutions to remediate the need for a lot of paper processes, or at least to reduce the impact on our ability to serve the end user community.

Cooke: Yes, we had to make sure everyone had the ability to do digital signatures so we could keep processes moving. 

MeriTalk: What has surprised you most during this time?

Cooke: One of the things that most surprised me was how employees adapted so quickly to working remotely and using the tools we gave them, including new tools like Microsoft Teams, which we just started using widely since we’ve been out of the office. In many cases, they even recommended other tools that would help them do their jobs.

McBride: Some of that very early success is a real credit to the leadership in the agency, both within the CIO office and outside of it. In the week or two prior to the full telework order, several of our key offices, including our CFO office, decided to do a full telework posture drill. They picked a date and had their entire office go to telework status for one day to acclimate their staff to working in that mode and to see if any issues came up that we could proactively address. That really helped prepare us, and when we went to full shutdown position on March 24, we did it pretty seamlessly.

MeriTalk: What systems have worked best – and can you tell us about lessons learned for IT modernization, cloud, cyber security, authentication?

Cooke: We took more advantage of our cloud arrangement with Microsoft than we previously had. We’ve also taken this time to look at better ways to do different things, from evaluating the platforms we support to comparing solutions from Microsoft Teams versus Zoom.

Read other Fed success stories

We also had to look at how people authenticate into our systems, the data going back and forth, and where it rested. We needed to make sure that as people are working from home, they are not accidentally moving data back and forth between their personal accounts or IT and the work they do for HUD. Security and privacy became even more important, as we have a little bit less control with everyone working remotely. So we’re putting a big focus on education and awareness.

We accelerated the release of an Electronic Document Delivery Module which digitized loan origination case binders, allowing lenders without the ability to endorse on their own, to electronically submit these case binders for approval. With the majority of the country working from home, we needed to quickly provide the ability for both lenders and our Federal Housing Administration (FHA) underwriters to work remotely while still continuing to provide FHA insurance, a mission essential function. Start to finish, we were able to leverage the FHA Catalyst platform to provide this critical ability in nine business days.

McBride: This was something that the CIO’s office has been working on with the Office of Housing for over a year, but the onset of COVID-19 made electronic document delivery very important. Not only were we able to accelerate that portion of the pilot project and get it up and running very quickly, but we’ve also looked at how we can leverage the same capability to automate two other offices. We’ve gotten an enormous amount of value – both at HUD and at our partners – in keeping the pipeline flowing, even in a position of full telework.

We have gotten testimonials from our industry partners who say they have waited a long time for this from HUD. It’s making a dramatic impact on their ability to keep these mortgage approval processes moving so people who are looking for housing can succeed. Even in the pandemic, people are still buying houses, and they still need access to HUD and FHA.

We’re now expanding these capabilities to other essential programs like Section Eight programs, and the Office of Native American Programs. We in the CIO’s office don’t often get a chance to see how these changes touch our customers outside of HUD, but we’ve seen and heard how these tools and processes have been essential during this time.

MeriTalk: What’s keeping you up at night when it comes to magnified cyber vulnerabilities in the pandemic, and other emerging threats in the post-COVID-19 world?

Cooke: The first thing I think about is an unintentional insider threat situation, because folks are working differently. We’ve had a few issues with spam and phishing. People may be more vulnerable now because they can’t as easily ask a colleague, “Hey, I got this weird email. Did you get it too?” We’ve sent out more notifications to our staff on being aware of threats and providing examples.

We’re also aware that there are issues with certain platforms being spoofed. We had to make sure our video conferencing platform was secure and we shared guidance with our team around that.

We’re also very focused on authentication – making sure the people accessing our systems are the ones who actually have the authorization to do so.

We’re thinking about how much monitoring we need to do. We’ve started building a virtual SOC and are increasing the monitoring on our network. The more we work remotely, the more we need to make sure we are protecting our system data.

Sargeant: We were also concerned with the Internet of Things and making sure our users had awareness of microphones inside the home. When they are conducting work on behalf of HUD, they need to be aware of who is around them. We were also a little concerned about their home internet security, so we socialize guidance with our user community, ensuring that their networks are password-protected when possible. We also talked to individuals about the differences between personal products and business products – and covering the risk associated with using certain products for HUD work. We were able to discuss what they were looking for and then come up with solutions that were perhaps a little better suited to meet their business needs while maintaining the security of the environment.

McBride: It’s natural and understandable that when people find themselves in a new situation, they reach for whatever looks like the easiest or quickest solution to get the job done, whether it’s related to electronic signatures or teleconferencing. We are glad that people have brought their ideas and needs to us, which allows us to evaluate each solution and determine if it’s something we can allow in our environment, or if we need to find an alternative.

MeriTalk: Any comment on how you’re using the CDM program in this environment?

Sargeant: There are some elements to the CDM platform that we fast tracked to implement as quickly as possible. We’ve been using CDM for quite a while and the switch to 100 percent telework helped us to quickly identify the things that were really critical for us.

MeriTalk: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned since the pandemic began? With the benefit of what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself three months ago?

Cooke: Making sure that everything is in place for demand spikes, having excess network capacity, and preparing to move to a paperless environment – especially in situations where we typically had on-site contractors.

Sargeant: Three months ago I would have asked how ready our staff is to work remotely with their own internal infrastructure at home, and do they have the tools they need. It’s not so much about whether HUD can supply laptops and phones, but whether our users have the right infrastructure at home to support those. And it’s whether vendors supplying the backbone for remote work are ready for a surge in demand nationally. I think they ended up doing a great job. We had a couple of bumps initially with capacity, but vendors quickly surged their capabilities.

McBride: We found that our staff, industry partners, and vendors are a lot more adaptable and capable than we might have assumed they were. People rose to the occasion on every level. They reached out to work together and to find solutions, and figure out ways to keep the mission going and get the business done.

MeriTalk: How would you grade intra-government collaboration and cooperation during the pandemic? How is information or best practices being shared across agency IT teams, and could those channels be improved?

Cooke: The intra-government collaboration and cooperation has been excellent, and Federal CIO Suzette Kent assumed a great leadership position. She had daily calls with all of the CIOs and deputy CIOs across government to make sure that we got the latest information available. She offered to help with everything from issues with vendors, to anything internal that she could do based on her position. The CIOs could share challenges and lessons learned.

We’ve had a lot of collaboration with several agencies – especially USDA, GSA, SBA, and Energy. They were very expedient in sharing information with us, and we had some lessons learned to share. With Energy, for example, we talked about Office 365 and how we expanded that.

MeriTalk: Tell us about your days in the first week or so of the crisis, and how have your days changed since then? Are you fully entrenched in this new normal now, and if so, what does that look like?

Cooke: In the first days of telework, we had a lot of help desk calls, and we were just making sure everybody had the equipment they needed and they knew how to use it. Not everyone was a teleworker, so not everyone was accustomed to logging into our network from outside. In the first couple of weeks, we were also focused on making sure our constituents outside the agency would be able to get ahold of us. Things stabilized fairly quickly.

For me, my days are pretty much the same. I have virtual meetings instead of face-to-face meetings. It feels like just as many, if not more, because some of those we could have taken care of in 15 minutes in person, or at the water fountain, or the coffee shop, but now there’s no opportunity to run into each other. We are starting to utilize Microsoft Teams to its full capacity in terms of video and sharing documents.

Sargeant: There are a couple things I realized in the first couple of weeks, and in the new normal now. The first one involves team dynamics and how individuals work. Prior to the pandemic, there were individuals who would work and attend different meetings – and engage in a lot of water cooler-type conversations – and there were others who were perhaps sitting on the sidelines a little, just focused on doing their work. Across my staff and other parts of the agency, people are much more engaged now because they realize their team members really rely on them. It’s helped with team dynamics. People have also really risen up and started to think outside of the box for different solutions to overcome some of the engineering challenges of telework, like dealing with broken laptops.

We’ve also collaborated with other program offices. The Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, for instance, did a good job working with us to figure out how to keep people engaged and how to help them while they are in that isolation phase. We also came up with different ways for individuals to check in periodically for their health checks. I think it’s going to remain the norm moving forward.

McBride: We maintained some really important touch points. Before the pandemic, our CIO senior leadership team had a daily 15-minute morning stand-up with the core team to cover hot topics and give everyone the CIO’s and principal deputies’ ears for at least a couple of minutes for urgent topics.

We immediately transitioned that to a virtual meeting, and maintained those morning stand-ups. That continuity helped ensure our staff could still get things done as a team and that our communication streams would stay open.

MeriTalk: Any shout outs to your team members at HUD or others across the government?

Cooke: In addition to cooperation from other agencies and our internal partners that we have already discussed, I’d like to mention the Office of Housing. They really took an opportunity, along with the CFO, to look at how automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence can really improve processes. And of course, all of our employees who really took to the technology that we’re providing.

MeriTalk: In the bigger picture, what are some changes that might result from the pandemic? Are there new things that we will keep doing, and will there be old things that we will stop doing?

Cooke: I see us continuing to do what we are doing now – that is the new normal. We’ve proven a lot of work can be done remotely, and so maybe you don’t have to physically work from one of HUD’s 70 sites. Looking at work as portable, I think, will be forever changed.

The other thing that will change is office layouts. In thinking about how we want to bring our folks back to work, one of the things we have to do is look at the spacing within our buildings. I know some organizations – GSA particularly – have already moved to a telework-centric posture without a lot of ownership over offices and cubicle space. Other agencies, including ours, will certainly be looking at that.

Another is moving toward a paperless society. We need to make a lot more progress here, how we maintain records and how we transmit to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

MeriTalk: How will you and your team function in a world without industry conferences as we know them, and how do you envision interacting with industry going forward?

Cooke: I attended a virtual event a couple months ago, which is normally a face-to-face thing, two or three days. This time, I just picked a couple sessions. The one thing that was different was some of the networking and interaction. I did miss that. The camaraderie created by physical interaction with other people in your field is definitely lost. Especially for industry folks, who are trying to engage with government, there’s less opportunity.

We’re still doing our RFIs, and we had a virtual industry day about a month ago. I’m not sure if vendors feel they got the same level of information or interaction. I personally didn’t get as much accomplished as I normally would. The value of that interaction, that networking is huge. That’s how I find out what’s going on, who’s doing what. That exchange of information won’t happen as easily now as it used to.

Read other Federal success stories from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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MeriTalk Staff