Federal IT has earned the status of lifesaver in the COVID-19 pandemic for its ability to deliver vital services to citizens in times of crisis. MeriTalk is chronicling those successes – along with lessons for the future as agencies turn to the next generation of service improvements. In this edition of CIO Crossroads, we examine the Department of Energy four months into the fray.
Foresight, Focus Keep the Grid Humming in DoE’s Pandemic Response
For an agency that traces its roots in part to the World War II Manhattan Project, it’s no surprise that mission is paramount. What is less obvious about the Department of Energy (DoE) is the vast scope of its work that touches the lives of every American, and holds the keys to technology advancements that can improve the lives of every future generation.
Here’s a short primer on DoE: broad oversight of the nation’s power grid; management of power marketing administrations totaling 11 percent of U.S. bulk electric power; maintenance of U.S. nuclear weapons facilities; management of environmental cleanup from Cold War nuclear sites; and funding of 17 National Laboratories that make DoE the largest Federal sponsor of physical sciences research pushing the boundaries of basic science with the goal of broad innovation.
In an exclusive interview with MeriTalk, DoE CIO Rocky Campione takes us through one of those missions that could not fail – proper functioning of the U.S. power grid during the pandemic. He credits several years of work by his predecessors that laid the foundation for remote work, quick expansion of VPN and cloud capacity, and the rapid repurposing of laptops as keys in DoE’s shift from 10 percent telework to more than 80 percent without so much as the lights flickering.
At the same time, DoE’s work on big data-driven cybersecurity improvement has continued apace, while the agency is providing supercomputing resources for the new COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium that is the muscle behind coronavirus vaccine and treatment development.
MeriTalk: Can you provide some metrics to illustrate the success of your work during the pandemic that tie to Energy’s mission? What is the story of the last three months by the numbers?
Campione: Before the pandemic, we might have had a maximum of 10 percent of our folks working remotely either on telework, or because they were traveling. When we moved to telework because of the pandemic, we had more than 80 percent of our people teleworking. Why not 100 percent? That has to do with mission. In effect, 100 percent of the people who could telework were doing so.
One of the lessons we learned was that even in places involving national security, we could reduce risk with shift work. You don’t want 100 percent of your people in a secure location at one time. If someone got COVID, you knock out your whole workforce.
Anecdotally, people are getting more done from home than they typically would in their regular environment. There is a lot of day-to-day work on the unclassified side that they can run through during the week while working remotely.
MeriTalk: How much work did it take to get to that 80 percent telework mark?
Campione: A lot of that revolved around the good work my predecessor, Max Everett, accomplished as CIO [from 2017 to 2019], and work to improve business operations by Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who was deputy secretary from 2017 until last year. Over the last three years, the CIO’s office here at headquarters and our IT organizations across the department spent a lot of time developing systems that could enable remote work. The target at the time was about 30 percent. The focus was making sure people can telework within a continuity of operations planning (COOP) environment.
To get to 80 percent, we started in mid-February. We had a pool of laptops that we use for travel, and the IT operations organization immediately started handing them out to make sure people could work from home. We had the VPN infrastructure in place that we could rapidly expand; we use a Cisco product. Between laptops that we had, or ordered, or had come in for refresh, we enabled another thousand users to have laptops.
MeriTalk: Looking at the mission of Energy and how it applies to this pandemic, any thoughts in terms of what your role was as an agency?
Campione: One of our primary mission-essential functions is to monitor the grid and make sure that the electricity flows in the United States. We call it Primary Mission Essential Functions 3 (PMEF3). That is a cross organizational group led by our Office of Electricity. The team’s roles vary, but it includes our Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) office that goes out and helps after a hurricane or storm to bring electricity back up, it includes our four Power Marketing Administrations (PMA) – they provide about 11 percent of the electricity across the country from a bulk transmission perspective, and it includes our Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPRO).
We immediately stood up an emergency operations group for PMEF3 to make sure we could continue delivering energy to the American people. That continuity is critical during a pandemic, because even if you had a million ventilators out there, if there’s no electricity, they don’t run. You can have all the doctors in the world sitting in a hospital, but if there’s no electricity, the hospital doesn’t run.
We take our commitment to the American people to make sure that electricity flows very seriously. Bruce Walker is the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Electricity. He worked very closely with industry to help make sure they understood operational best practices to ensure the control centers that manage the grid stayed up and running. When we went into this, our priorities were PMEF – 1, 2, and 3. If we had an extra laptop, that’s where it went first. That’s how we prioritized.
We have to keep electricity running across the country so that first responders can respond. During this period, we were moving oil into the strategic petroleum reserves. We needed to make sure that IT was up and running so we could handle that oil.
MeriTalk: Could you tell us about a couple of your largest priorities and successes during the pandemic? Specifically, what are you proudest of and where were there surprises?
Campione: I’m proudest that we moved pretty seamlessly into maximum telework. However, if I told you there wasn’t a single hiccup, that would be a lie. I’m proud of my organization and proud of all the IT organizations across the department that allowed our people to be safe. Safety here involved social distancing and making sure that people didn’t have to come into the office or use mass transit – whatever they needed to do to help stop the spread.
I’m also proud we kept moving forward on initiatives and priorities. Our big data platform that we use for cybersecurity went to full operational capability during this time period. Our FITARA policy and governance people continued their work.
During this period, we undertook a complete review of all of our cybersecurity capabilities and resources to understand how we fund cybersecurity from an IT and OT perspective. We have our findings, and they will be incorporated in future budgets. I’m also very proud of moving the big data platform (BDP) to full operational capability, continuing the day-to-day business of the government, and continuing to meet our obligations during this time period.
Finally, our primary mission essential functions are always ready to answer the call if needed. They never went to a non-green status because of an IT issue.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the secretary and the undersecretary for science led efforts to create the High Performance Computing Consortium to help address COVID. How do we use the fastest computers in the world to help research this issue better? That was a major focus for the department, alongside NASA, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM. And now it’s expanded, and international in scope.
MeriTalk: Were there any surprises?
Campione: I think one involves how many people have now embraced telework. This is anecdotal, but anytime I’m on a call with anybody in the organization I say, “How’s it working for you? What’s happening? Can we do better? Are you getting your job done?”
I’m surprised at how often they say, “I never thought I’d like telework, but this is fantastic. I’m getting so much more done.”
MeriTalk: What’s been working really well from an IT systems perspective? Tell us lessons learned for IT modernization, cloud, cybersecurity, authentication.
Campione: It’s pretty bread and butter, but our VPN capabilities – they just work. If you’re logging in with a government-furnished laptop, it’s as if you’re at your desk. Maybe you don’t have the monitor you had, but you have access to everything you need on that laptop because of the VPN. That has absolutely worked the best.
Everything else I ask, “How can we do it better?” Our virtual desktop (VDI) capabilities have been good, but in the IT supplemental budget, we specifically asked for funds to make them better. Everything else worked well, but obviously there are things that we can improve. We were very grateful for the support in the building, across the government, and on the Hill.
We’re rapidly moving forward. We realized that someone with a laptop coming in through the VPN had a better experience than through other means of coming in. Our VDI and other virtual desktop environment configurations worked well, but we have additional funds that we can use to take the next steps to have them work even better, and then increase capabilities. We’re moving forward with that right now, too.
Our virtual teleconferencing (VTC) capabilities have worked well. With all of the providers, there have been little hiccups along the way – WebEx, Zoom, Teams – which is no surprise as all of those providers had to respond to meet this demand that they never had before. In order to make sure that everyone using VTC has a good experience, we will be utilizing our enterprise architecture to move to at least one standardized VTC application to make it easier. Can we make it even better? That’s some of what we’re working on.
That said, I don’t want to standardize on just one VTC capability, because then you have a single point of failure. Everybody can have one that we’re standardized on, and then an alternative means for connecting. We have not made a final determination. I’m generally neutral on which one, but we have to pick one moving forward.
MeriTalk: How has workforce feedback come in?
Campione: We did an internal survey where we asked, “How is telework working? Can you get your job done? What’s worked well? What hasn’t worked well?” We did fairly well. The secretary has already directed that we start the review of lessons learned. From the beginning, the secretary embraced learning from our experiences. He said, “No one will ever be perfect in this world, but you can take pride in solving problems, learning lessons, and moving forward.”
MeriTalk: What’s keeping you up at night when it comes to magnified cyber vulnerabilities in the pandemic and other emerging threats in the COVID-19 world?
Campione: Everything keeps me up at night! The culture of the American people and the culture of people who believe in public service and work in the government is that we want to help. That culture can create vulnerabilities.
People might say, “I need to help with this, so I need to click on that.” Or, a government employee or contractor who is in this business because we all want to do the right thing might take a shortcut because they think it’s the right thing to do, and unknowingly create a vulnerability. That keeps me up at night.
The bad guys were out to get us before this started, and they’re out to get us now. Former DoE CIO Tom Pyke – one of my mentors – used to say the bad guys are bad, they’re getting badder, and they are always out to get you.
MeriTalk: What is your greatest lesson learned since the pandemic began, and what advice would you give yourself if you could go back three months?
Campione: The hard work and the dedication of our people over the last three years, creating the infrastructure that allowed us to go to maximum telework, has definitely paid off. It’s a great reminder. You do your job in the day-to-day grind and ask yourself, “Am I making a difference?” We have learned that we do make a difference. We need to constantly remind ourselves of that, because we are in IT and we’re constantly solving problems. Technology changes constantly. You solve a problem, and two years later your solution is obsolete. You need to solve the problem again. From a very high level, what we learned is that the work we do every day matters. A major focus for our senior leaders is making business operations better. That’s not flashy. You’re not putting out a press release. But it matters.
What advice would I have given myself three months ago? Be calm. Have more confidence in the work that you’ve done over the last two or three years. Understand you’re not going to have all the answers. On every call, we remind our team – the key is patience and flexibility. It is not possible to over communicate.
MeriTalk: How would you grade intra-governmental collaboration and cooperation during the pandemic?
Campione: I am in the Suzette Kent fan club. The leadership that she provided was invaluable, especially moving into this, and by organizing regular calls so that agencies can ask each other, “Hey, how are you preparing?”
In one case, one agency tested something and determined that if they tweaked a firewall setting, they’d get better performance and then they shared that out with other agencies so that those agencies could benefit from it. That was a direct result of Suzette having these CIO calls daily. I’m sure six months from now when we’re out of this, someone will be able to turn around and say, “If we had just done this” – call them the V8 moments. But the coordination and the effort put forward to try to coordinate has gone well, and if someone has an issue, I would say it’s because they didn’t participate.
MeriTalk: Tell us from a personal standpoint a little bit about your days in the first weeks of the crisis and how they’ve changed since then. Do you feel like you’re fully entrenched at this point in whatever that new normal is? What does it look like?
Campione: I had the flu for the first two days. I was coordinating the entire move to telework in bed with a 100-degree fever. Luckily, I tested positive for the flu. I was glad to have a great team around me. My principal deputy Mark Kneidinger really helped out, along with Bryan Long, who runs our Ops. Everyone really stepped up. We had a call at 4:45 each afternoon with all our IT leaders on the Federal side across the complex.
We do them once a week now, and it’s almost funny because when we ask if anyone has anything to share, they say, “No, everything’s working.” Now, it’s morphed into, “Hey, since we’re all talking, make sure we’re getting FY22 budget prep ready.”
MeriTalk: Any stories from these past months that might be interesting to share?
Campione: We had one individual who said, essentially (not a direct quote), “They’ll drag me out of my office kicking and screaming.” That individual’s attitude about telework has changed to, “This is awesome. How can I keep doing this?” I think that’s compelling. I think it’s compelling that we identified we can work in a secure fashion wherever we need to be.
I’m also very proud of how we care for each other as individuals. People will call and ask how you are doing. That’s literally from the secretary on down. Two weeks into maximum telework, we had a virtual all-hands meeting that included our OCIO Feds and contractors, basically 500 to 600 people from across the country. The secretary called in and just said a few simple sentences. One, the number one priority is health and safety of the people at the Department of Energy. He wanted to make sure they heard it from him. Two, we are the backbone that allows everybody to be safe. And then he said thank you. He said thank you to the organization. It was great for everyone on our team to hear from our leadership that the work we do is important.
MeriTalk: Along those lines, do you have any shout outs for folks for your team at Energy, or across government?
Campione: Absolutely. To Bryan Long and his team in our operations division, thank you. I don’t say that enough. The work they’ve done over the last three years and the work the team accomplished going into maximum telework allowed everybody to be safe. There’s Mike Montoya, CIO for Western Area Power, and all of the folks at the PMAs who worked to make sure the American people had bulk power. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the secretary for immediately saying the health and well-being of our people was the number one priority, because if you don’t have that we can’t get our mission done.
Dr. Chris Fall, Director of the Office of Science, coordinated the department’s COVID response. It’s been fantastic to be able to work with him. Even when he’s picking up the phone to tell me how I could improve or what information he needed five minutes ago that I’m still trying to get. And, on the acquisitions side, Ron Austin and Shari Davenport, along with our Chief Procurement Officer John Bashista.
Intra-government, Suzette Kent and her leadership, organization, and what she’s done to make sure we were all talking. And Renee Wynn from NASA; she was an active participant in those early calls, sharing information.
MeriTalk: One final question, given there won’t be in-person conferences for the foreseeable future, and thinking about that need for collaboration, what do you think will be helpful for you in terms of staying in touch with the vendor community?
Campione: The DOE NLIT Summit will be held in October, in a virtual format. We did have to postpone the DOE cyber conference, which will take place in spring of 2021. I’ve missed that ability just to share ideas. I have attended a couple of webinars. I’m not running around between meetings and had a little bit more time just to be a participant on topics of interest. I’ll go on and listen silently. There have been two or three around zero trust and one around digital transformation that I’ve enjoyed attending and hearing about what other people are doing. One was on TIC 3.0, which is another area I’m particularly interested in.
If the topic is directly related to something DoE is planning, I’m even more interested. How was somebody else doing something that I think I have a problem with, or I’m interested in? That’s a long-winded way of saying we’re going to be doing virtual teleconferences and we’re going to be doing virtual events. Our partner community should be working through the organizations that provide those services.
Read other Federal success stories from the COVID-19 pandemic.