During the pandemic, necessity has driven a lot of change in many organizations worldwide. Many government organizations were agile enough to gather resources like CARES funding quickly to complete shovel-ready projects. However, others did not take advantage of this funding. 

During this podcast, Abhijit Verekar and Mike Caffrey discuss the basics of creating a COVID-resilient government organization. As the pandemic continues to take a toll, the CARES funding deadline has been extended to December 2021. This extension allows more time to find shovel-ready projects, create long-term strategic plans, and execute projects that help your organization achieve your goals to become more COVID-resilient.

 AV: I’m here with my buddy, my partner, Mike Caffrey. We’re talking about something that we’ve been dealing with a lot. In fact, I was on a phone call with a public housing authority talking about how to spend CARES dollars and how to ensure its koshered to spend those dollars on a certain project. 

We’ve been dealing with this for some time. We have some fresh thoughts on how to even begin thinking about what defines a COVID-ready, shovel-ready project, and how do you go about matching dollars to projects. 

Mike, I know you’ve been in the thick of things as far as that is concerned. What do you think are the few things that we should be talking about here as far as being COVID-ready? I don’t think anyone wants to hear that term anymore. We’re all sick of it.

MC: We have to deal with it. One of the things we’d all agree on is this necessity has driven a lot of change and most of it is good change. What’s different though is you and I have seen firsthand that there are some agencies, counties, and cities that have been great at asking for money. 

There are some that seem to miss the boat entirely. We’d all agree also that the need is consistent everywhere. There are pockets of need. There’s need everywhere. When we look at this either localized ecosystem or nationwide, why is it that some agencies, some governments have a lot of funding to do a lot of different things, and others are still struggling to figure out what it is they want and how to pay for it. That’s an interesting puzzle to solve and one that we usually aren’t involved in.

AV: I don’t mean to be flippant when I say we’re sick of it. A lot of people have died. A lot of businesses have been disrupted. Thankfully, we’re in a business and in a region that handled things slightly differently than a lot of the country. 

The CARES deadlines have been extended for cities, counties and local governments that got CARES funding in 2020. At first, there was this rush to spend because the deadline was December 31st or something like that. They then said that if you have unspent funds, you can now spend it all the way through to December 31st of 2021. However, I don’t think they’ve said you can spend it on any and everything. There are still some parameters. 

Tell me about your experience when you were dealing with our clients and this one client said, “It helped me become more COVID-resilient and we’re going to use CARES dollars.” What were some things that you encountered? I know you talked to the state, and the State of Tennessee was the one dispersing the funds for this county client of ours. What was the conversation you had with them?

MC: In the beginning, you had to have something that was shovel-ready. In other words, the timelines were such that in the very beginning if you didn’t have this thing already outlined, already architected, whatever it is and it didn’t fit within the rules, but it could not have been budgeted for in your last fiscal budget cycle. Number one, it wasn’t going to get funded. Number two, it wasn’t going to complete in time for you to get reimbursed. 

Those of us that were agile enough to find something that could provide for the greater good for the communities where you’re in, and gather the resources as quickly as possible, we were ready to go. Here we are coming up on the end of 2020 in December, we find out that the deadlines have been extended.

It’s something I don’t think anybody expected in October. Now, it’s extended for the project that I was supposed to finish by December 15, or could I identify new projects and use the new deadline of 12/31/2021? I think it’s the latter. There are still rules around the kinds of projects that you might attack. To that end, we’ve got a much longer timeframe to not just ask for the money, design a solution and implement. Do things in a proper fashion as opposed to nature, which is the way I felt for 2021.

AV: When you said “shovel-ready” when we pitch projects to our clients or they come to us and say, “Can you do this then the other?” After you do the technical design and the scope of work and all that, you still have to go through a fairly significant purchasing process. 

For example, one of our clients got $10.5 million to spend between May and December of 2020. By the time they found us, we had those discussions, and we were ready to take this to purchasing, they were now purchasing. They’re doing their jobs. They were saying, “We need to put this out to bid. Here’s the timeline. We’re going to sink two months into the purchasing process.” 

How did you get over or around it? Were there special provisions that Tennessee provided their counties that say you don’t have to follow certain purchasing rules because this is emergency spending?

MC: That’s probably the best point of this whole conversation. Nobody wants to hear that we bent the rules, we went around the rules, we used other rules, or we didn’t follow the rules. We use the same rules and protocols that we would have these been normal times. It forced us to be more creative. 

If we found a solution, we would look for other counties that had an active bid that could add us to that bid. We could use that vendor with that solution at a predefined discount from another county and bring that to bear in the city or county that we were architecting a solution for it. It shortened the timeline, but this is usually a months-long process. We had to compress that into weeks.

It’s not just finding a solution but finding an acceptable solution. It’s not just, “This is good enough,” but everybody wants what’s best for their community. Finding that best solution, and then scouring the neighboring counties, cities, bids, state, federal, whatever that purchasing agent was capable of utilizing. Going back to that community, that purchasing department and asking them if we could be added to that bid, and of course, people are always so kind to do so. From there, getting all of that back to the purchasing department that wants to move forward as quickly as possible. They can take advantage of this great opportunity presented to us here. That was a lot of activity, and that’s just the funding part. We haven’t even started the work.

AV: You’re not talking about just buying computers or HVAC systems. That was a hot topic, HVAC, COVID killing lights, you name it. Rightfully so, those things have a direct impact. As far as technology projects, people were buying computers because you want to make sure your staff is mobile-ready to go work from anywhere, and that your infrastructure is ready. 

We did some novel projects like the CBRS pilot for Blount County. We used an almost empty mall for Wi-Fi zones where children could come and do homework if they don’t have access to internet at home. Those are just a couple of examples. It seems like we have some lessons learned from the last round of CARES funding. The first thing is, have a list of shovel-ready projects. We have the 2nd, 3rd round of funding now with different regulations, but we’re in the same boat.

If you haven’t thought ahead about what you are going to do to make life better for your staff, for the citizens, for schoolchildren, and have a list of projects ready, you’re going to sink 2 or 3 months into your deadline not having anything done. It’s important to have maybe the first project is a strategic planning project where you think about what’s possible. What do you want to get done in this one year? What was on your list maybe to do three years from now but let’s get it done now? Step one is have a list. Sometimes they call it your spine to sky list. Let’s see what we want to do or what’s possible.

MC: Don’t come at me with a list saying, “I need 33 Dell model 3322 laptops.” That’s not what we’re talking about here. Come at me with, “Here are some things we want to accomplish.” In other words, define the outcome that you’re looking for, something you’re looking to achieve within your community, and then let’s have that refined discussion of, how do we accomplish that? 

What kinds of technologies can you bring to bear? How much do these things should cost? What would be the effort to implement that thing? What should fall out from that conversation is, “Here are 5 or 6 projects that can be completed within the timeframe allotted. Here’s a couple that we’d love to do that aren’t going to fit,” because it still has to fit within the guidelines provided for 2021 CRF funding.

If you were to have that conversation that you described and it’s not a technical one, it’s more about the outcomes, then you’re more likely to arrive at something that truly benefits the community. If in the end it still ends up being 33 Dell laptops, then so be it. That’s what it needed to be if that’s one of your top five priorities. If it isn’t, if it’s something like, “We need to add a portal so that we can do more contactless permitting within the community, people could do more online instead of coming into the office, people could make more payments with credit cards instead of checks and cash.” Those are great outcomes also.

Unfortunately, some folks might be laughing right now saying, “We did that ten years ago,” There are still communities that have not done that. Those need to be brought to the forefront. Those projects need to be maybe on their top five priority list. I’m all for defining these outcomes not with techie words and vendors but with a true non-technical approach that says, “Here’s what we want to do within this community. Therefore, here’s what we need to do,” allowing us to get as creative as you need to be to make that happen.

AV: Once you have those outcomes defined, what do you think the next step is? You shouldn’t assume – and we are guilty of this too. In 2019, we had a solutions plan for virtualizing courtrooms. We said, “Solution can be done here. Here are the components.” We didn’t factor in that our vendors like Dell were struggling to find components. At the time, everyone is looking for it. What are some things that you should assume or shouldn’t assume when you do have that list and starting to plan for rollout?

MC: Enter the category of do not assume even with this compressed timeframe to get a project done and knowing that we may not have had something truly shovel-ready. The assumption here is we can’t prototype. We can’t test a solution. We have to go in with the answer, the solution and it’s going to cost X. The thing I think that if we were to take a more iterative approach would be for us to come in and say, “There’s something we can do now. We can improve upon that over a period of time, and it would still fit within guidelines.” Some of the best things I’ve seen from a creative team is for people to play off another’s ideas.

We start with maybe the department head or project sponsor. We put something in that they find acceptable. We make tweaks along the way to improve the performance, or if they like the performance, to expand that technology or put it in other areas. We didn’t go at this as, “Let’s make the perfect design and in three months, we’ll do a massive, big bang implementation.” We did it off the little bits and pieces along the way. As we got towards the end of the calendar year, we knew also that if we were to do this in that fashion, maybe we don’t finish with what the final vision is, but whatever this inner ambition is, it will be good enough and get paid.

AV: You’re talking about assumptions. When we make assumptions, we have to be careful in how we communicate those between our team, our clients, their teams and the user base. There’s an element of change management that comes in through all this planning. We’re talking about moving at breakneck speeds when it comes to government especially. It was private sector, as you know better than anyone, we would have pivoted some so quickly. 

The challenge that COVID has exposed or highlighted is governments are slow to begin with by design. You don’t want to move fast and break things. You want it to be deliberate and be stewards of the taxpayer’s money, and expectations and outcomes. When you have a plan, when you define assumptions, when you found the money, you have to have a change management process so that your user base understands what’s to come and what to expect. How do you deal with that?

MC: When you look at things you assume, our assumption is we’re going to run as fast as a certain client or project sponsor allows, as fast as they want. In this case, it’s not in their DNA to run quick and for good reasons, but the communication piece is left unchecked. We’re dealing with somebody that, “I don’t have a shovel-ready project. Help me find a way to get this thing implemented and help me find the funding to get it done.” We’re doing all of that for them. 

We get to maybe the first iteration phase one and somebody is not happy, but somebody is not happy for the reason you think. They are not happy because of the solution. They aren’t happy because they weren’t included in the process of the design. They weren’t included as a checkpoint during tests, things that typically would have happened in a technology solution that we didn’t have time to do.

We were looking for our clients to lead us through that. As a result, there’s a potential for feelings to get hurt. At the same time, there was so much on the line here, not just the funding but the technology had to work. I’d like to think that we all had our eye on that there’s a net benefit to the community. Somehow by implementing this project, we’ve made things a little bit safer, a little bit better, socially distanced, and even a lot more efficient in many cases than it was before.

Not everybody got to be included in those decisions and it’s unfortunate, but that’s one of the things we saw. It didn’t have to happen that way. That just happened. Now that you’re looking at a longer timeline to get these things done, I would go out of my way to make sure that if people aren’t to be included in the process of design, that at least they’re included from a communication point of view. We acknowledge the fact that they are there. They’re not going to make it perfect, but we still got to move quicker than we would have typically.

AV: The good news is if our clients or prospects still have money left from the last time, you’ve got a year now to spend it and to do it right. Prioritize the list, good assumptions, clear communication between all parties, and don’t forget the small things. Another lesson learned from the last months is we were able to make our clients more resilient to remote work by being more secure, we moved desktops to their houses. We made sure that they have the right kind of internet. The non-technical things sometimes get forgotten. Who’s going to check the mail every day?

MC: I’m sure there’s somebody laughing at that comment, but when you look at the process piece, the third leg of a three-legged stool here, the thinking tends to move to, “I need some piece parts here. Help me buy some piece parts, and then I can work remote, and then this will be better. In four months, when the pandemic is over, I can go back to doing things the way I used to.” We heard that a lot early on. Here we are sitting and not only has nothing changed, but we could be on the verge of yet another wave. What have we done to protect ourselves? We need to be more aware of what’s going on around us.

I’d go even a little bit further. Let’s say that to fit guidelines to make sure that we got most of our goals accomplished in a shovel-ready project for 2020, now would be a great time to go back and refine some of these things. Maybe I didn’t go through that process of having a strategic planning session. Let’s invest a little bit of time in that right now before we go into the budget cycle. Before we spend more money perhaps in the wrong area, let’s have one of those sessions now. Let’s collect some input from people that might not have had a say in how things ended up as of here in January of 2021. 

From there, maybe adjust our plan a little bit, or go back to some of these things that were implemented and make them run a little bit better than they did when we finished them in December 2020. There’s a lot of room for improvement. We’d all agree in that. It’s when do we find the time and make the time to prioritize what those improvements need to be, and then we can go through the same process again of, “Can I find a useful bid without going through the RFP process? Can I find money still that can be useful in helping us achieve those goals?” All these things are doable.

AV: It’s a great time. We’re about to start the budget season. Budget season coupled with what seems like a lot of money. We talk about public housing authorities. There’s $73 billion or $78 billion made available. Of course, that’s not everything for technology and planning, but there’s a lot of money available. You’re in the right timing, especially for our public housing clients. If there is another wave that is worse, they’re probably going to get hit harder because they have to provide services to people that can’t afford housing in a pandemic. 

Rightfully, they have a lot of funding available to them. It’s a great time to start thinking about these things. We threw around this term, “the new normal,” in 2020. Everyone did and we were guilty of that too. We’re starting to find out that there isn’t such a thing. You have to stay on top of things and evolve until you find whatever that new normal is. The process of finding it is what we’re all going through now.

MC: It’s a conversation you and I had some time ago. It was more like the kind that a lot of folks might be having which is, “What is this thing and how do we deal with it?” One of the things that struck a chord with me in one of our conversations is, you brought up public housing, when you look at those less fortunate, this gap that we live in, this period here where some of us have lots of options for education, for healthcare, for providing for our families. We have access to even news as to, what do I need to do to either protect my family or to protect the things that I feel are most important? Education for one.

Those are simple answers for guys like you and me. We’re firmly planted in this middle-class here where, “I’ve got internet. Doesn’t everybody? My doc is down the road, a great guy. I can see him anytime I want. Doesn’t everybody have access to docs like that?” You and I have driven by clinics for COVID testing. That urgent care clinic had a line around the block. It’s a socially distanced line but a line, nonetheless. 

These are all the things that while we all looked inwardly a year ago, we all focused on ourselves. At that same time, what we’re seeing is, you brought up the public housing segment here, we saw ourselves, but we missed seeing what we could have done for others. This is a great time for all of us to be bigger than ourselves, to reach out, and look for those projects that don’t just make an efficiency for a government but to extend government, to make sure that those less fortunate have the same kind of access as the rest of us. It’s a segment too easily ignored, especially if you’re in a rural setting, which is 85% of America.

AV: I know you’re extremely passionate about this particular thing. We’ve done some projects. A lot of 2020 or mid-2020 through the end was making sure our clients are secure. When you’re not in the courthouse or the housing authority main office, a lot of things you do on-premises cannot get undone when most of your workforce is remote and your network isn’t built for that. There was a lot of the fundamental basic block building type projects we did. We also did things like we hooked up a whole college campus with fiber. That was COVID funding. It was in the 1800s that they built that campus.

MC: It’s an over 100-year-old school campus. It presents a lot of hurdles when you’re dealing with buildings made of stone and not cinderblock, made of plaster and not drywall. It’s interesting but is a great example of here’s a point in time where you see a lot of colleges going virtual. We’re thinking maybe this is the new normal for them. Here’s a college that is preparing for whenever this thing subsides. There will be a better-connected version of themselves and using the money in the right way to extend themselves. After this pandemic, there’s going to be a lot of folks that might be looking for a path out of severely impacted sectors of the economy.

If you were in a service sector and you were negatively impacted by COVID, and you’ve seen this now going on for the better part of a year and who knows when it ends, maybe you’re thinking, “I need to go back to school.” You’re going to need to find a school that can cater to a distance learner. It has to be connected to do that. There are a lot of old college campuses that are going to be either consolidated or fall by the wayside because they weren’t prepared for what hit them, in the same way, that we’ve seen with small businesses as well. 

We’d like to think that government is a bit more resilient in that regard, but it’s not. They’re vulnerable still, and certainly in other states where maybe their tax revenues are tied to service industries, or communities where a large part is dependent on vacation revenue. What are those guys going to do? How are they going to pay the bills?

AV: Connecting fiber into an old, large campus is a good example of a shovel-ready project. To bring it to step number one, what have you been planning to do or want to do that’s ready to go with minimal planning? That was a good one. When we did the CBRS pilot, COVID and the pandemic was a trigger, but there’s always been this push for bridging the digital divide. That existed before the pandemic. That will exist unless we do something about it.

MC: It will get bigger unless you lose something. When you look at the things we have and the things that others don’t have, it’s easy to assume that we all have access to the internet. I know a couple of years back you and I were talking about the fourth utility. We got water, power, sewer but the fourth utility is the internet or data, however you quantify that. It is becoming a necessity of life and the pandemic has underscored that, “What am I going to do? My education and my healthcare are dependent on it.” In a lot of communities, guess what happened in the last few years? Regional hospitals have been either shut down or consolidated into bigger hospital systems elsewhere.

That hospital that used to be in your hometown, you now get to drive 45 minutes to get there so you can stand in line socially distanced in the cold. These things have happened. Now, the pandemic has made the differences between the haves and the have-nots even greater or the digital divide, as you pointed out. 

If people do not see what the pandemic has created, all they need to do is hop in their car and drive down to rural America, Main Street, USA. Get out of LA and New York, drive anywhere else. They’re going to see communities without the full range of services that a lot of us take for granted. A lot of it is driven by the ability to get data from point A to point B. Telehealth, tele-med, what’s going to happen in some rural community in Nebraska? Do they have tele-med?

AV: We did work for a legal services agency in Nebraska in 2019. It’s Legal Aid. It’s a large organization. In Nebraska, it’s one Legal Aid that’s supposed to serve the whole state. What they were facing at the time was the people not being able to pay rent, eviction notices, and they were supporting these tenants that couldn’t pay rent because of the pandemic.

We were able to come up with a plan for them to choose COVID money or otherwise to bridge that digital divide. The one that’s getting the most eyeballs and ears these days is how students can access their homework. If I live in the woods in some backwoods county in Nebraska, I don’t have access to a lawyer. Telehealth, tele-lawyers mean nothing to me.

MC: I know there were several projects put on by a Walgreens or CVS several years back. Their bridge to telehealth was to have these telehealth offices in the Walgreens. You would walk in, and you would sit in something that amounts to something larger than a closet. There would be a screen there with a video phone type of setup. You can talk to a doc online elsewhere. That’s just one thing. 

First, I’d have to have a Walgreens or CVS in my town. If I didn’t, as many communities don’t, we’re back to making the drive to a community 40-45 minutes away and then hoping that they have time for me there. There are many angles to this. Our team was sitting in on a briefing and what we were talking about was virtual phones but an IVR system.

IVRs have come a long way. If you have a traditional physical PBX on-site, it is difficult to upgrade an antiquated system or even a new system, so that you’re able to handle a volume of calls, prioritize those calls without putting other people on staff. The use case for this would be let’s say there’s a snowstorm and you’ve got a whole bunch of people calling in because they can’t get out of their driveways. The use case is I’m going to call this phone number, and what many of us take for granted is there’s a machine that answers that says, “You can wait for Jim Bob to answer the phone,” or “We’ve collected your phone number and you can maintain your spot in line. We’ll call you back in the order in which your call was received.”

It gave me some time back. Here’s the thing. If you live in a virtual world where you have a virtual phone system, IVR is literally checking a box on a screen and turning it on. It’s enabling a community, in the midst of a pandemic, to take care of a volume of something so that we can all sleep a little better, a power outage, a flood, a tornado, whatever. To me, that’s what we can be spending our money on. That’s what we can be spending our time on. Those things are only possible or better possible in a virtual world where we’ve enabled them with better data or better internet services.

AV: When the pandemic first started, the worst-case scenario was what rightly was assumed, that people are going to die like flies. We’re going to be left with no IT department. How many calls have we sat through where clients or prospects were calling and saying, “If my 3% IT team is immobilized in any way, how can you guys support us?” That applied to us too. We were like, “What are we going to do if that’s the case where everyone’s dying?” 

Thankfully, this pandemic didn’t do that. There might be something else, God forbid. Now we know how bad it can get or how much worse it can get. Automation, virtualization, standardization, documentation, backup planning, disaster and recovery, the basics have not changed. It’s no sexier than it was in 2019. You have to do the basics right. 

It’s a great time for anyone reading, our clients, prospects, or anyone to define what those things are. Chase them with the dollars available and the time you have available. This is the right time to talk about all those things because the next one may not be as kind to us as much as destructive as COVID-19 has been. All the plans were for worse.

MC: In one of the meetings we were sitting in, somebody brought up, “Have you noticed that we don’t seem to be talking about the flu this year?” It’s true. We look at our own extended team, our clients, and our people as well, and I haven’t had one case of people staying home for the flu. Staying home to quarantine because they had been exposed to COVID or having COVID, yes. The flu? No. 

Here is one reason why that’s happening is we’re doing the things we probably ought to have done a long time ago. We don’t come to work when we’re sick, we wash our hands, we cover our mouths. We make sure we do the right things to not spread germs.

When we come out on the other side of this pandemic, most of us will have some of those habits. The rest of us will go back to the way we were doing things. The flu will come back as good as it’s ever been in all its glory. Like the flu, technology needs to be adjusting to this shift in need. We should be looking for opportunities to create contactless transactions that make our governments more efficient and allow us to do the things we should have always done. Wash your hands, cover your mouth. Don’t go to work when you’re sick. In doing so, we will be a better world for it. I have no doubt.

AV: One or two organizations that I do know were so forward-thinking that they were like, “We’re going to take this opportunity to become contactless.” You’re running an AS/400. How do you collect taxes? They mail it in, or they walk it in. The gap is too far. You can’t go from a green screen to the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence because you have COVID money. You have to go back and eat your vegetables. You have to do the basics right. On that note, we’ll call it. The steps we talked about are to have a plan, do the basics right, assume or don’t assume the right things.

MC: Also, take time out for a little strategic planning. Invest the time in that now. Now is a great time to do that. Do a Zoom meeting and everyone bring their ideas there but do not define those with brands and products. Define those in terms of community needs. You’re going to get there quicker.

AV: That’s where we come in because we don’t resell. Let’s do a little sales pitch. Don’t resell. We know every brand and we know the trusted ones for a particular use case.

MC: I like being a product agnostic. We’re going in and visiting with a client who’s flexible. We’re trying to be creative in our application technology. Many times, maybe the only parameter is the outcome they’re looking for and the budget they have assigned to it. In all of that, I can come in there like my IBM friend and say, “Here is a product that IBM sells that’s going to fit your need. Here’s how much it costs.” Name it, HP, and any of them. Even if I was to go to CDW who might not be product agnostic, but they certainly have tens of thousands of products to sell us. Don’t come at me with product. Come at me with a design, a solution, a fix for something that isn’t working quite right.

From there, then let’s look at your budget, your design, and let’s then help you decide. Maybe based on things we’ve seen with some of our other clients or even our competitors, some of the use cases that are published out there, we can help you choose. Maybe this vendor might be a good place to look but don’t buy it for me. 

Use your government discounting, use this contract over here, use whatever vehicle you need to get the best price for the product. We’ll help you get there with a better spend. I like that we’re product agnostic. Sometimes it pains me to see how the money gets spent on the product. At the same time, there are better people for selling and servicing that stuff than us.

AV: Mike, we’ll do this again and talk about something else.

MC: Hopefully, I’ll see you in person sometime soon.

AV: Once you’ve solved the pandemic, we’ll see. Thanks, Mike.

MC: Take care. Thank you.

About Mike Caffrey

Mike Caffrey, Vice President & Partner of Avèro Infrastructure, has over 22 years of experience solving the puzzles of efficient, secure, and cost-friendly modernization for various public and private sector organizations. He is the recipient of InterCon 2019’s “Top 50 Tech Leaders” award for significant technology sector contributions. Caffrey has also been recognized by the following: National Top 50 Tech Advisors (2019), Small Business of the Year Blount County (2019), and Excellence and Innovation in Government Cyber Security (2020). 

His vast experience in Information Technology (IT) started as an IT Management Consultant and Senior Storage Specialist for International Business Machines (IBM) in 1998. Prior to becoming a Partner at Avèro, Caffrey was President of Hosted Government Solutions and Chief Strategist of InfoSystems, Inc., and other reputable IT organizations across the southeast. He has also been featured as a panelist with Dell (Virtual Courtrooms – 2020), GFOA (Government Finance Officers Annual Conference 2020), and Tyler Detect (Annual Conference 2020.

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