Should the current swine flu outbreak worsen, it could present a huge test of government's ability to work remotely.
Although the current outbreak remains far from a pandemic, thousands of suspected and confirmed swine flu cases -- most of them concentrated in North America -- had been reported worldwide as of Tuesday. In a worst-case scenario, government agencies in the U.S. could be forced to enact emergency business continuity plans that include telework for government employees.
But a big unknown is if governments, including technology-focused departments, are truly ready to let workers telecommute, as a means of slowing the influenza's spread. According to a December 2008 report from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, 60 percent of federal agencies had included telework in their continuity of operations/emergency plans in 2007; only 42 percent of them did so in 2006.
Furthermore, some states' emergency plans for pandemics include teleworking as a strategy, while others don't, said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that promotes teleworking in the federal government. The situation varies widely state to state, she said.
"One of the issues we found, in particular with the federal government, is that only about 7 percent of these eligible employees are regular and recurring [telecommuters]," Auten said Tuesday. "One of the key strategies in having a business continuity plan and incorporating telework into it, is ensuring that you're testing it often and you build telework as a part of your standard operating procedure -- so it's not a frantic, mad rush to the door to actually start your telework program at the last minute."
But Auten said it's not too late for government agencies that don't have a teleworking plan. The first step should be identifying mission-critical personnel and equipping them with the technology and policies to do their job remotely, she said.
"From an IT standpoint, the technology is absolutely there. The majority of governments already have the infrastructure in place. They're working with field workers who are logging in remotely, so they're already having the access. It's just a matter of putting the guidelines in place," Auten said.
Auten pointed to Virginia and its Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance as a model that's worth emulating. The office's "telework road map" outlines Virginia's definition of telework and how to start a teleworking program, provides tips for managers and employees, and explains how to secure sensitive data when working from home. Virginia requires all government agencies to have a teleworking policy. For example, half the work force of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency telecommutes at least part-time.
The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) outlined recommended actions for CIOs in a 2007 paper titled, Pandemic Planning and Response for State IT: Where's My Staff? The 15-page report suggests a variety of measures, such as teleworking, cross-training personnel so they can cover a variety of roles in the event that many employees are absent and ensuring key officials have permission to drive a "priority connection" through a PBX phone system if Internet service goes down. It's those sorts of capabilities -- unique to a pandemic -- that are important to plan for.
But CIOs shouldn't assume their department will always have access to Internet service or their phone systems, because a pandemic could cause absenteeism across the supply chain -- potentially even among Internet service providers and telecom companies.
"This could greatly affect teleworking technologies and [
virtual private network] access for critical staff and increase the need for remote access technologies that do not depend on PBX phone systems and Internet access," according to NASCIO. "Alternative communications methods require preplanning. A CIO cannot afford to explore such methods for the first time as the problem is unfolding."
Fortunately, unlike a hurricane or flood that strikes quickly, a pandemic affords "the luxury of time" to prepare because it takes time to infect a large population, according to the NASCIO study.
"The CIO can start to respond and escalate a response, but identifying the critical triggers and executing successfully on those must be in the state's overall [disaster recovery/business continuity] plan. CIOs need to identify critical staff and business functions that their state enterprises cannot function without," according to NASCIO.
Epidemiologists say that if the swine flu outbreak becomes a pandemic, social distancing -- purposely closing public gathering spots like restaurants, schools and parks, and steering clear of neighbors and friends -- would effectively slow the transmission rate.
"If you're looking for a long-term social distancing, you're going to want to develop more of your employees into a telework program," Auten said. That takes time, so start planning now, she said.