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Pandemic Forces Seismic Shifts for County Government IT

The novel coronavirus forced the nearly overnight shift from government offices to work-from-home setups. In Oakland County, Mich., a vendor helped officials navigate this process with enhanced cybersecurity tools.

a figure stands at the opening of a maze
The COVID-19 pandemic and the nearly overnight need for work-from-home capabilities has boosted the demand for technology solutions like multi-factor authentication, or video communications and conferencing.

Large public agencies like Oakland County, Mich., part of metropolitan Detroit, have turned to some of the latest tech to ensure that thousands of workers, decamped to their home offices, are able to do government business in a secure and effective environment.

Like most parts of the country, Oakland County ceased most of its in-office operations in mid-March, forcing an abrupt shift for ongoing projects and the need to ensure that at-home work settings were secure and functional, said E.J. Widun, chief technology officer for Oakland County.

Widun said these sudden changes were an exercise in being nimble and working quickly for IT staff, as they worked to support roughly 5,000 county employees and contractors.

“And so what we were able to do was start the project of getting our employees working remotely,” he explained. “We had a solution in place that allows us to use a virtual desktop PC, and we expanded the use of that from a couple hundred into almost 2,000 in the course of a week or two."

“We added multi-factor authentication to that, and that’s the process by which we mobilized that workforce,” Widun continued.

Prior to the shutdown and the switch to remote work, the county was in the middle of several large IT rollouts related to communications upgrades like voice over Internet protocol and changing out the enterprise resource planning system. At the same time, staff were also working with the vendor Okta to introduce an identity and access management solution.

“We were using this to consolidate the identity platforms that we use today,” said Widun.

Officials wanted to consolidate and standardize how the county verifies identity on its systems and protect identities “from that increasingly unsafe digital world,” and they needed standards and an ability to audit data access, Widun explained.

“We also wanted to future-proof how we secured our applications,” said Widun.

“We have gone from that Day 1 of mobilizing the workforce, to now we’re in project delivery mode again,” he added.

The demand for large-scale remote work deployments has arguably been one of the most seismic shifts that government IT departments have ever been confronted with, but it's one that not all agencies have moved smoothly into. 

“The rapid shift to remote work has been a tremendous challenge for state and local government agencies,” said Jack Alexander, national director for State and Local Government and Education at Okta. “It’s one thing to support a handful of executives that tend to be more mobile, but to suddenly have entire departments shift to work-from-home was a sudden and significant challenge.”

“Email and cloud apps are one thing,” he added. “But a legacy application running out of a government data center is quite another.” 

Overnight, in Oakland County, IT officials had to erect firewalls against “bad threat actors” looking to take advantage of exposed systems, said Alexander, coupled with workers who were not always accustomed to practicing “security hygiene.”

“It was a recipe for disaster,” he added.

With the novel coronavirus continuing the spread across so much of the country, county, city and state offices are in a holding pattern with remote work.

“We are still trying to keep the workforce remote as much as we can,” said Widun. “But we are opening services slowly across the county. We’ve put in some robust screening procedures and we’re starting to open different office buildings for people coming in. But where we can avoid having people come in, we try to still have them work remote. That’s been the biggest change we’ve seen in IT."

“I think it changes the way we think about working in the future as an IT organization, not just for this county, but across the world,” he added. “Showing people the value that comes out of being able to work remote.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.