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Oct 2020 | September-October Issue

Leveraging Technology to Ensure Public Sector Continuity in Times of Crisis and Beyond
David De Abreu, Cisco Canada

Since March 2020, governments at all three levels across Canada have been forced to shift processes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the public sector rapidly changing its processes due to these unprecedented circumstances. 

The pandemic has fundamentally changed how governments operate and necessitated hundreds of thousands of public servants across the country to quickly deliver vital support and services to Canadians, even as they themselves shifted to working from home. Even in the face of that adversity, employees at the federal, provincial and municipal levels — and at organizations of all kinds — have launched financial aid packages, delivered life-saving services and implemented public health guidelines to protect communities across the country. 
 
This shift would not have been possible without the right technology including communication solutions, security tools, and networking infrastructure — all of which have played key roles in connecting public sector teams who otherwise would have struggled to deliver services at the pace necessary. There have long been calls for transition to a more digital government, but the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated that transition decades ahead of schedule. In fact, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to reconsider how government works in every way possible. 
 
As we begin to emerge from the onset of the pandemic, now is not the time to settle back into previous habits, but to push ahead with fully implementing the innovation needs that have emerged over the last few months with such immediate and stunning force. Leveraging the right combination of technologies and solutions will help the public sector become more efficient, effective and secure during and after this crisis — and to be better prepared for whatever the future might hold.
 

I. The need for business continuity

 
As the spread of the pandemic continues to evolve in Canada and around the world, it is critical that our public sector employees have what they need to keep working safely and uninterrupted, regardless of what may come. The need for business continuity is two-fold. First, there’s the crucial work that needs to continue irrespective of the external forces at play — from public health, to critical human services to financial support payments. There’s also the ongoing work that enables citizens’ everyday lives, like drivers’ licence renewals, building permit issuances and employment insurance payments. These services need to continue for society to function. Technology has a key role to play in making all of this possible.
 
Whether the next challenge is an additional wave or another world-altering event, the pieces need to be in place to ensure services are delivered and public sector employees can continue their important work. And while technology is the enabling tool, business continuity plans must always first and foremost be centred on people. 
 
At Cisco, remote working is in our DNA — which made it natural for us to implement work from home policies to limit our employees’ exposure to COVID-19. We were also uniquely positioned with the technology, people, partners and global scale to help make the switch not just for our employees, but also to help our customers and communities stay connected, supported and secure. In response to the pandemic, we provided collaboration tools and security offerings for free, along with access to our suite of cloud-based services to get customers up and running quickly to support their business continuity. In the first week of March alone, we saw a 700 per cent increase in adoption of our Cisco Webex video conferencing solution. 
 
Our solutions have helped organizations in both the public and private sector pivot and remain operational. One of the most powerful examples of that has been our partnership with Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The pandemic compounded existing challenges in delivering health care, while also bringing into focus the ever-growing need for safe, secure virtual care that protects both frontline workers and patients. To address the growing demand for virtual mental health services, Cisco worked closely with CAMH to put in place an easy-to-use, reliable and highly secure video conferencing solution that could be deployed at scale. 
 
Cisco’s Webex technology has helped CAMH deliver a smooth experience to patients, enabling greater flexibility in scheduling appointments and follow-ups, shorter wait times, ease of communication with clinicians, and the ability to access secure, quality care no matter the location. In April, at the height of the pandemic, Webex enabled 1,500 more virtual visits with CAMH clinicians over the course of the month, up from 350 patient appointments per month.
 

II. Adopting a Zero Trust approach to security

 
As organizations expand their digital footprints, their potential exposure to online security threats increases exponentially. For malicious actors, public sector networks are obvious targets — and that fact means there are ongoing risks to the stability of public sector organizations and our government institutions. Breaches have the potential to severely disrupt the flow of services to Canadians, forcing systems to shut down for extended periods of time. 
 
Given that civil servants are now spread out far beyond the regular perimeters of their IT networks, potential security threats need to be closely examined in the context of our new reality. To be truly effective at protecting against those threats, public sector organizations must adopt the industry Zero Trust benchmark to security — which is crucial for maintaining security at scale. 
 
“As the spread of the pandemic continues to evolve in Canada and around the world, it is critical that our public sector employees have what they need to keep working safely and uninterrupted, regardless of what may come.”
 
At its heart, the Zero Trust approach is about protecting an organization’s systems, applications and data by applying the basic assumption that nothing that connects to the network is secure. With remote workforces, you can no longer establish a ring of protection around a physical location – it must extend into the cloud, into employees’ homes, and to any authorized (or increasingly unauthorized) device. For public sector organizations, Zero Trust is even more critical, as they are the gatekeepers of some of the country’s most sensitive information.
 
Endpoint security is critical for this purpose – employees need to have access to devices that allow them to perform their jobs. It’s likely that now, as workers are at home, many devices used are not compliant with standard organizational security policies. This poses security risks, as unpatched vulnerabilities can be exploited by attackers. It will also be necessary to identify the software needs of employees, reassess existing software, services and platforms that are being used, and set policies around software that is sanctioned for company use. 
 
Once the endpoint is secure and sanctioned software needs are determined, it will be key for employees to have access to resources on the corporate network. A virtual private network (VPN) is the best and most widely-used method for securely connecting remote teams, enabling encrypted communications and requiring authentication before accessing the network. VPNs ensure remote teams comply with security policies. This is also where the Cisco Security ecosystem can come in, to cover email, networks, cloud, web, endpoints and everything in between. 
 
With the remote public sector worker likely here to stay, comprehensively adopting these approaches and solutions will help to ensure security is upheld so work can continue in spite of whatever challenge might come.  

 

III. The power of a collaborative public sector

 
Equally important is deploying collaboration tools to keep personal connections at the centre of our interactions, from day-to-day operations between public servants to connecting with citizens.  Remote working collaboration tools have become a lifeline for businesses, governments, and communities to stay connected and productive. This is one of the driving reasons why Cisco’s Webex technology was used to successfully and securely host the first-ever G20 virtual summit to discuss the international efforts to address the pandemic.
 
Not only are collaboration tools now table stakes for business continuity, but they can also make the transition to remote work life considerably easier. Using video conferencing is one of the most effective ways to remain connected and productive. Video can drive meaningful collaboration, help foster better relationships between colleagues, and enable more seamless conversations in comparison to audio-only meetings. A tool like Webex can also help to recapture some of that in-person feeling and productivity, with enhanced capabilities like content sharing, notation, and whiteboarding.
 
Collaboration tools will be critical for cities and government agencies as they revamp how they provide services and communicate with their communities. It’s vital that the lines of communication remain open between municipalities, councillors and those they serve. For example, in a time where you can’t host community gatherings in a single room, virtual town halls provide an alternative forum for dialogue, sharing information and receiving feedback from constituents. 
 
Cisco has provided the technology platform for numerous public sector organizations to do just that – whether it be internally amongst employees or with the broader public, including a recent virtual town hall with the City of Toronto that reached over 8,000 participants.
 
Looking ahead, as governments and businesses explore what “normal” will look like once the pandemic has subsided and a return to the physical workplace is possible, there will be a number of important questions the public sector will need to answer as well as opportunities to pursue. Taking a cautious and balanced approach to bringing public sector employees back into the workplace will require a big-picture view.  Ensuring compliance with public health guidelines will ensure productivity continues unimpeded. Organizations may wish to consider hybrid models for this reason. Not only will this help alleviate concerns around physical distancing in cramped office quarters, but it will allow employees to return when they are comfortable doing so. 
 
There are many opportunities that will emerge out of the restructuring of governments spurred by the pandemic. With the technology already in place, it will be possible to seamlessly enhance operations in the public sector —such as moving more service delivery functions online, making them accessible at all hours of the day and removing the need for citizens to travel or wait in line. Leveraging technology has the potential to dramatically reshape the public sector, through the pandemic and beyond, ultimately ensuring better service by governments to their citizens. 
 
David De Abreu, Vice President, Public Sector Sales, Cisco Canada is responsible for leading Cisco’s business direction in Canada’s public sector, which includes government, healthcare, and education organizations. De Abreu has more than 30 years of sales experience leading channel, services, enterprise, commercial and service provider teams. He rejoins Cisco after holding a leadership position at Roger Communications and has also held senior roles at Bell Canada NCR and CIBC. He previously served in several senior leadership roles at Cisco Canada including vice president of services, vice president of solutions and vice president of Central Canada Operations.