CIO Crossroads: Federal IT in the COVID Crisis – NSF Edition

Dorothy Aronson, CIO of the National Science Foundation, pictured here at the 2018 FITARA Awards and Forum. On June 25, 2020, Aronson said NSF will likely "be much more of a virtual organization in the future."

Podcast: CIO Crossroads – NRC Edition

Americans rely on government services 24/7, and even more so during times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven the critical importance of Federal IT in sustaining the nation, but left its tech leaders mostly unsung. MeriTalk is surfacing the untold stories – and lessons – of those agency and leadership efforts. In the latest installment of CIO Crossroads, we turn to the National Science Foundation (NSF).

NSF’s Formula: Keep the Wheels of Progress Turning

NSF is an independent Federal agency focused on promoting the progress of science and advancing the health, prosperity, and welfare of our nation. With an annual budget of $8.3 billion, NSF is the funding source for approximately 27 percent of the total Federal budget for basic research conducted by U.S. colleges and universities. The agency is also the major source of Federal backing for many fields including mathematics, computer science, and the social sciences.

NSF’s overarching goals – discovery, learning, research infrastructure, and stewardship – are more important than ever during the COVID-19 crisis. The agency has more than 1,600 employees – the vast majority at its headquarters in Alexandria, Va. It also has a handful at a South Pole research base and others in Denver, Colo. and Charleston, S.C., supporting that remote operation. In the pandemic’s early days, NSF was one of the first agencies to shift to a 100 percent telework model, doing so by March 16, keeping its very important research programs moving without skipping a beat.

Typically, NSF brings in experts from around the world to review incoming research proposals and determine what it will fund. None of that work has stopped – it just went virtual. In less than two months, the agency has held more than 813 virtual proposal review panels, with the average number of participants per day at 115.

NSF has also helped bolster the national response to COVID-19 through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. CARES Act funding supports a wide range of research areas to help the country fight and recover from the COVID-19 crisis through several research funding mechanisms, including Rapid Response Research (RAPID). RAPID helps put scientists on the ground quickly, conducting research to help first responders gather critical insights and save lives. As of May 21, 513 awards totaling over $73 million have been made to researchers nationwide to support pandemic-related research.

Please join us for an in-depth conversation with Dorothy Aronson, CIO at NSF, as she shares her insight into the critical role science and technology play during times of crisis – and how to keep those wheels turning.

MeriTalk: As CIO of a Federal agency uniquely dedicated to supporting fundamental research and education in science and engineering, can you tell us about some of your largest priorities and successes during the COVID-19 pandemic? What are you most proud of?

Aronson: I’m proudest of the consistent, outstanding service provided to NSF by the operational IT shop. They are one of the driving forces behind NSF’s success during this time. They practice every day for emergency response. They handle every small thing that goes wrong as if it is an emergency, so their practices are well rehearsed. That’s paid off in this situation.

We also have a continuous modernization approach. I believe that IT is like a man standing on a log – you have to constantly be moving to stay upright. When the pandemic struck, we expedited implementation of a couple of things that were partially implemented at the time. One was an electronic workflow and approval system that included our electronic signature requirements for the agency. We also were piloting Zoom video conferencing, and people loved it. We had developed training materials and a deployment approach. We had a very small portion of the agency using it, and the Friday before we moved to 100 percent telework, the implementation group pushed it forward rapidly to cover the entire agency.

MeriTalk: What surprised you most?

Aronson: At NSF, we have pioneers who are off doing way more than I could ever imagine. We have early adopters, who are eager to work on the things that the pioneers create. Then we have the normal people, and the laggards. So, when we implement new products like Zoom, we have a targeted approach for each of these groups, as well as a gradual roll-out process. But when we implemented Zoom, we had only worked with the pioneers, and then everyone else came on very quickly. That showed me that when people need something, they are very quick to learn.

MeriTalk: Can you give us any metrics to show the success of your work during the pandemic that furthers the agency’s mission?

Aronson: We moved very quickly to a 100 percent telework model. And we moved 100 percent of our panels to a virtual model. At NSF, we receive proposals for research ideas, and we typically bring experts from around the world to our headquarters to review those proposals and determine the ones we’ll move forward with and fund with grants. None of that work has stopped; the panels became virtual.

Between March 17 and May 13, we’ve held 813 virtual proposal review panels, and the average number of participants per day is 115.

Read other Fed success stories

MeriTalk: What’s worked well across the Federal government in regards to telework? Did you encounter any challenges at NSF? Are there any NSF employees that just can’t telework due to the nature of their job?

Aronson: Fortunately, the majority of the work can be done virtually. The only people in our building right now are maintenance workers and guards. Even jobs where we would typically need to be present – like customer support or the help desk for the data center – are being done virtually. Our people have adopted the technologies well.

MeriTalk: What keeps you up at night when it comes to magnified cyber security vulnerabilities during the pandemic?

Aronson: We haven’t had any major issues at NSF, but I always worry about the people aspect. The more we’re working with new technologies, the more likely it is that someone will click on a link that they shouldn’t. And during this time, our hallway conversations are replaced with more email, which also increases the risk.

Earlier, I mentioned the pioneers, the people at NSF who experiment with technology. It’s their field, and they are fascinated by it. When we’re physically together, we have a lot of processes for people to go through to implement new systems on our network. But, now we’re distributed, and people are possibly working on equipment that’s not NSF equipment – this makes it more likely that they’ll accidentally move something onto our network that causes a problem.

MeriTalk: How is CDM implemented in your agency, and is it working well?

Aronson: When the Federal government offers us opportunities like CDM where compliance is easy and inexpensive, it’s a cost benefit for us to use it. It’s a good fit for us to comply.

MeriTalk: How would you grade intra-government collaboration and cooperation? What’s working well? And are there areas where agencies could benefit from greater collaboration?

Aronson: We have been working really well together from the beginning. Suzette Kent, the Federal CIO, whom I admire and respect, started daily tag-up calls which have been very effective in keeping us all connected. The CIO Council is a very interesting group in that we have developed trusting relationships with each other. We have similar problems and we collaborate well together – we had been doing that before. So, when the pandemic started, it only amplified our relationships. We interact more frequently.

We collaborate via an internal site where we post things for each other and share information. And of course, we have a lot of dialogue via phone and email. One opportunity for improvement – I think we need to move forward with a better collaboration tool, a more federated collaboration capability. The tools we used are constrained because of the variety we’re using.

MeriTalk: How are you sharing information and best practices across agency IT teams, and how could those channels be improved or expanded?

Aronson: There are many efforts going on across and between agencies at different levels. So there’s CIO to CIO and CISO to CISO, but we have cross-agency teams at the development level that are sharing technology and data. I don’t find resistance in that. We look for places where the business is similar and we reach out to each other and say, “Hey, how are you doing this?”

But we do sometimes have trouble sharing data that each other needs. Advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain will help us minimize that barrier. But sharing best practices is common; we learn from each other all the time.

MeriTalk: Has NSF been able to accelerate pandemic-related research efforts?

Aronson: NSF has been working closely with the scientific research community to bolster the national response to COVID-19 through our Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism, which allows us to quickly process and support research that addresses urgent needs.

For decades, NSF’s RAPID funding mechanism has ensured scientists are on the ground quickly after a disaster strikes, conducting research to help first responders evaluate the local situation, gather critical insights, and develop knowledge and tools that will save lives the next time a crisis hits.

In March, as the severity of the COVID-19 crisis loomed, NSF put out the call for RAPID proposals to address the pandemic. As of May 21, 513 awards totaling over $73 million have been made to researchers around the country to support research related to the pandemic.

Just some context for why this is important – previous RAPID awards have helped advance our understanding of past Ebola, Zika, and SARS outbreaks, as well as measures to contain them. RAPID-funded researchers have also responded to disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. So this is critically important work.

MeriTalk: Can you tell us about your days in the first week or so of the crisis, and how have they changed since then? Are you fully entrenched in the “new normal,” and what does that look like?

Aronson: I had never teleworked before except for maybe one day a year. Most of my interactions were in meetings. When I first started working at home, I didn’t know when to quit. But now I feel pretty comfortable with it, and I love not commuting. We have virtual NSF now, and I’ve adapted to that situation.

But I’m not sure how a mixed world will work – if some of the people are back in the office and others are not. My initial prediction is we will still do a lot of virtual work because even the people in the office will be segregating themselves and wearing masks. Two years from now, who knows what it will look like? I think it’s going to continuously change, and maybe continuous change will be the new normal.

MeriTalk: What are you missing the most from the pre-pandemic days?

Aronson: I miss the informal conversations I had with people at the office – in the kitchen, in the elevators – where you have these random conversations where you learn a lot. Since the pandemic, I’ve made a practice of reaching out and having informal conversations, but there still are not enough of those serendipitous conversations.

MeriTalk: Are there any lessons learned from a technology perspective?

Aronson: We do pretty well from a technology perspective. Going forward, I imagine that a larger balance of the workforce will be working remotely, which I think is a great advantage, as we’ll be able to hire people across the world with equal participation – we won’t be restricted to the D.C. area.

We need to have better mechanisms for balancing network traffic and rerouting network traffic as people become more dispersed. I think they will remain dispersed even if there is a return to the central organization structure. We need to focus on modulating network performance.

MeriTalk: Any shout outs to team members at NSF, or anyone else across government?

Aronson: NSF leadership has been incredibly flexible, generous, and committed to the health and safety of the staff. That’s been obvious since day one, and we’re all grateful for that.

The Division of Information Systems, which is responsible for operational IT, has done magnificent work. Their compassion for the customer has been amazing. The Asynchronous Meetings Working Group deployed Zoom capabilities for reviewers that are not part of the NSF workforce – the experts who are helping us get the mission accomplished – and that’s been fabulous. And the Human Resources organization has done a great job, as has the Facilities group, which has kept everyone safe.

And Suzette Kent has done such a great job. The CIO Council enabled us to stay connected across government in a way I’ve never seen before. Those meetings cover not only IT issues, but general information about what is going on. That’s been absolutely critical.

MeriTalk: In the bigger picture, what do you think will change in government and society as result of the pandemic? What are some new things that we will keep doing, and what are some things that we will stop doing?

Aronson: We are going to have to remain agile and responsive just like we always have been. The pandemic has shown us that we can move faster at modernizing and adopting new things. We have to imagine the world as we want it to be, and then take steps toward that. We have to ask what kind of technology do we need to have in place for people to interact with ease and comfort.

MeriTalk: How will you and your team function in a world without conferences? How do you envision interacting with industry?

Aronson: Conferences have been very important for the interactions and the serendipitous relationships that they foster. I’ve learned so much from them. We do have to solve that problem because the tools that the IT community uses are the ones we buy. We are highly dependent on knowing what’s out there.

For me as a Fed, learning about products one at a time is not an effective method. I have to see them all at once, see a broad repertoire, and learn what’s coming. I don’t have a solution for how that’s going to work, but I do feel there’s an essential gap there. Ingenuity will bring us some solution for that.

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

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