In the event of a disaster — whether natural or otherwise — most government IT directors think first about protecting the data centers.
This is a reasonable reaction, of course. But in the aftermath of the recent derecho and the spate of weekly storms that have continued to affect the region with power losses that last hours — or in the case of the derecho, days — the efficiency of agencies and businesses is at stake. It’s time to take a fresh look at telework as an important aspect of disaster recovery and continuity of operations policies.
After all, the Telework Act of 2010 indicated that telework is a useful strategy to improve continuity of operations to help ensure that essential federal functions continue during emergency situations.
However, the concept of telework in general has been more closely associated with personnel benefits, such as cutting commuting costs and improving work-life balance. I believe, however, that the time has come for a telework mind-set change. Certainly, it promotes convenience and efficiency, but not until agencies view telework as a critical aspect of disaster recovery will it take hold in a meaningful way.
Consider the numbers. A recent Office of Personnel Management report to Congress said 684,589 of 2.1 million federal employees are eligible to telework. But at the end of the federal government’s last fiscal year, the report said, only 168,558 had actually begun teleworking or were set up to do so.
Why the gap? Obviously, telework implementation has not been addressed with the same sense of urgency as perhaps data center protection and recovery. The problem is that protecting the data is only half the equation.
In the event of a disaster or disruption, what good is protecting the data if employees can’t access information? This issue becomes more important as more and more data centers consolidate and agencies operate from locations across the metro area, farther and farther away from their data centers.
For example, an agency might have operations in Woodbridge, Herndon, the District and Aberdeen. If a weather event renders the offices in Virginia inaccessible, employees need a telework program in place to continue working with colleagues.
Here’s the call to action: Government IT directors and CIOs should take this time in the aftermath of recent weather events to reassess their disaster recovery policies. They need to ensure not just that data centers are being protected, but that data can be accessed. Data access points must be reassessed and scrutinized. Telework should be recognized as an amazing tool to provide effective disaster recovery and continuity of operations.
Plenty of agencies are setting a good example already. The General Services Administration had to close its headquarters in the District because of power outages in the wake of the derecho. But a large majority of employees were able to telework until the issue was resolved.
The first step for any agency to get started with telework is to simply identify the eligible workers in the organization and start a proof of concept program. Agencies, including the GSA and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, have excellent programs already in place. IT leaders in other agencies should reach out to their colleagues at GSA and ATF and simply ask what they did to get started.
In the event of a disaster, telework could mean the difference between an agency that is functioning effectively and providing critical services, and one that is shut down.
Sudhir Verma is vice president of consulting services at Crofton-based data company Force 3.