A Year of Public Sector Resilience & Innovation
Many would have no qualms with leaving 2020 in the rearview mirror. After all, last year tested our nation and the world in ways none of us could have ever predicted (and which we hope never to repeat). While it was a challenging year in so many respects, especially for those who battled or lost loved ones to COVID-19, the year also provided opportunities for America to show its capacity to think creatively and adapt quickly. Nowhere was this more evident than in the race to develop a vaccine. A close second to consider was our ability to adjust on the digital front.
As coronavirus began to spread, many Americans’ lives shrunk to the size of their computer screens. No longer able to carry out daily activities in person, both individuals and institutions had to adapt to the “new normal” of remote work, remote learning… remote everything. While such shifts came with setbacks and a fair share of snafus, they also demonstrated America’s resilience and knack for innovation – qualities that lay a promising foundation for our digital future.
Take the 2020 boom in telehealth, for example. The number of virtual Medicare visits jumped nearly 44 percent between February and April of last year. Though the rapid shift to online appointments highlighted concerns about the security of sensitive data transmitted over video or through patient portals, it has largely proven a positive development. Today people with limited mobility or those located in rural areas have greater access to healthcare than ever before. Though some Americans will surely opt for in-person visits again when possible, the rise in telehealth availability is here to stay.
The sudden shift to remote work environments, while chock full of logistical and security challenges, also recalibrated America’s mindset for the better, especially in the public sector. Pre-2020, government agencies across the country were largely resistant to the concept of remote work. With in-person collaboration off the table once COVID hit, however, state, local, and many federal agencies were forced to adapt at breakneck speed. What was once thought to be impossible became necessary – and many agencies surprised themselves with their ability to overcome challenges and build both a mobile workforce and digital resilience in the process.
Such digital resilience also proved key for ensuring Americans maintained virtual access to critical constituent services and education last year. From government website crashes to virtual classroom “Zoom bombing,” the quick move to online environments presented unique digital and cybersecurity challenges for the public sector. Though much work remains for modernizing government and education’s digital ecosystem, IT teams learned valuable lessons from 2020 that will surely come in handy moving forward.
In addition to presenting cybersecurity challenges, the transitions described above put America’s very real shortcomings in digital equity on full display. According to the Federal Communications Commission, nearly 30 million Americans do not have broadband. No high-speed internet in the era of coronavirus has meant limited access to critical health services, remote economic opportunities, and online schooling, with those living in rural and Tribal areas at a particular disadvantage. Luckily, this digital divide has not gone unnoticed. In 2020, efforts abounded across all levels of government to help close the gap: thirty-four states enacted legislation or adopted resolutions related to broadband last year, with some opting to use federal CARES Act funds to expand connectivity.
Moving Towards a More Durable Digital Future
With 2021 well underway and COVID-19 only just beginning to retreat, closing the digital divide remains a top priority across the country, as does securely modernizing the public sector’s cyber infrastructure. For many organizations, the latter will involve shifting to cloud-based architectures and services.
Public sector cloud adoption is not new – in fact, it has been on the rise for years – but the pandemic has accelerated the transformation. Moving to the cloud is not the answer for every government or other public sector organization, but doing so with the right solution can offer increased efficiencies, flexible control, and enhanced cyber protections.
Another topic top-of-mind in 2021 is software supply chain security. In the wake of last year’s SolarWinds breach, America must find objective, reliable ways to better assess and manage risk from software vulnerabilities, especially for products in government and utility environments.
The need for a defense-in-depth, whole-of-government approach to federal network security could not be more urgent. According to recent research from Veracode, 80 percent of software applications used in the government and education sector have at least one flaw. Though these flaws are, on average, not high severity issues, any vulnerability increases the risk of malicious exploitation.
As the Biden Administration, federal agencies, and policymakers on Capitol Hill weigh courses of action for shoring up software supply chains, increased transparency, cooperation, and meaningful collaboration between public and private sector stakeholders will prove pivotal for success. Cyber risk can never be zero – however, public-private partnership in the development and adoption of artificial intelligence-based software code assessment tools can help drive down risk to more acceptable levels.
A Promising Look Ahead
If January and February have been any indication, this year will be another challenging one. But, just as 2020 taught us, these challenges will bring opportunities to demonstrate America’s resolve, resilience, and penchant for innovation. It is up to us all not to waste them.