The City of Los Angeles adapted its operations fairly quickly to the technological demands of the novel coronavirus pandemic thanks to a relatively early response to the crisis following years of building up its digital tools, city Chief Information Officer Ted Ross told StateScoop.
Some states and local governments found themselves earlier this month with just a few days to equip their staffs with the software, secure infrastructure and devices needed for a move to remote work. But Ross said that when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Feb. 26 warning that “it’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when,” he gathered his staff at the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency to find out what it would take to move as many as 20,000 city workers onto a telework platform.
“Immediately, the technical staff started to have the eyes roll into their heads and their minds boggled, but we started to identify and establish a platform,” Ross said.
The city bought software for a platform that allows city staff to access their work applications and files remotely and securely. As of last Thursday, Ross said the platform had 11,600 registered users and was stable with 4,400 concurrent users. The early start allowed Ross a bit more time to prepare the city to work remotely before California implemented a statewide shelter-in-place order on March 19.
“That has absolutely been the lifesaver because once it hits and you get a stay-at-home order, you have to have platforms to support people,” Ross said. “If not, you get kind of a mass panic, so it’s been extremely important for us to have a basic strategy: how do we handle field workers, how do we handle office workers, how do we handle managers and supervisors?”
Ross said it was also valuable to recognize the city’s limitations in issuing digital devices. While Los Angeles already had a program in place that replaced city workers’ traditional desk phones with smartphones, issuing everyone laptops was never considered viable.
“Traditionally, when we’ve thought about telework, a lot of people said the city will need to issue the devices, and we said there’s no way we’re going to come up with thousands of laptops at a moment’s notice,” Ross said.
In addition to being costly — Colorado’s Office of Information Technology earlier this month placed a $2.4 million order for 1,800 new laptops — Ross said disruptions to the global supply chain mean the devices wouldn’t be immediately available, anyway. Instead, he said the city focused its efforts on cybersecurity, with a recognition that most of the city’s staff would be using their own devices.
“This is not a hardware conversation,” Ross said. “This is a security and a software conversation and an identity conversation. Cybersecurity has to be first and foremost in this conversation because criminals are absolutely trying to take advantage of the panic and the chaos that’s caused by a pandemic.”
Another test of the IT agency’s agility came on Friday, March 20, when Mayor Eric Garcetti asked Ross’ office to turn around a website that would allow residents to check their eligibility for COVID-19 testing. The website launched that Sunday, a feat Ross said was only possible because his office adapted a case-management system the city had been developing for the past two years.
“That’s the only possible way you can deliver something so fast,” he said. “If you’re building it completely from scratch, it can take weeks. All the stuff that we’ve been preaching to each other the last few years — to do good dev-ops and agile development — it really all comes into play with something like this.”
Despite Ross deeming the transition successful, he said his office is also fielding eight times as many help-desk tickets — there were more than 3,000 last week, he said — as city staff ask for help setting up their virtual private networks or troubleshooting finicky apps that aren’t usually used remotely. But as those issues are resolved, and with the launch of another website that provides city staff with resources designed to stave off boredom, loneliness and depression, Ross said he suspects his job will soon become to solve highly specific use-cases as the majority of workers get their problems solved and adjust to a new normal.
“We may be a very large organization, but I think every IT organization out there is making a massive pivot,” Ross said. “It’s not like we can send people home and shut down the city. We have to keep the city running while people work from home. That’s kind of what’s next for us, giving managers tools to manage and giving employees tools to kind of cope and overcome a very strange, stressful type of situation.”
This story is part of StateScoop & EdScoop’s Special Report on Remote Workforce.