Government agencies…how is access and collaboration with your remotely-located content working out for you and your workforce during the COVID crisis?

There is only a fraction of government agencies that can perform full remote access to the mission content of their organizations. This is not simply because there is no shared understanding of an organizational approach to collaboration among the workforce. Nor is it solely because those agencies which DO have collaborative software in place have failed to configure it properly.

The primary reason government employees lose access to their “working” content is because the greatest abundance of government information and content is classified above the UNCLASSIFIED level and, with very few exceptions, UNCLASSIFIED networks are the only government networks into which the government remote workforce can dial-in. Government employees spend 99.999% of their working time on the primary network on which their organization runs: USAID works almost exclusively on the government’s unclassified .gov network. The Deptartment of State works on the unclassified networks, secret, and top secret networks as well. The intelligence community is almost exclusively working at the top secret level.

This means that when government employees are mandated to stay home, as they find themselves at the present time, they have no access to any of their “high-side” content (content rated above UNCLASSIFIED) from their homes, for obvious national security reasons.

The government manages its own private networks for each level of classification and often will have multiple networks at the same classification level but separated from other peer level networks by different crypto. Remote access to these networks is reserved for agency leadership, only. Dedicated, tempest-hardened lines are necessary, even in their cases.

Non-executive government employees, restricted from access to their classified government content and resources, are left with the collaborative abilities of the government’s unclassified networks, equivalent to and connecting to the Internet. These are evidenced in the .gov and .mil domains. Under them are isolated networks which in time of war and the imminent attack of, ironically, a computer virus, can be cut away from the Internet allowing the .gov and .mil unclassified domains to exist and operate without the threat of an Internet-introduced virus.

What’s on those unclassified networks?

Upon logging in remotely, government employees find that the resources on their unclassified networks are limited at best. The resources will most certainly include email, even accessible via a browser. Beyond that, it is hard to say what the government standard is for collaborative software. While SharePoint/Office 365 is the common enterprise content management system in most agencies, few provide it on the low-side (UNCLASSIFIED network). Some organizations may only have email while others actually do have Office365 or some other kind of content management system.

For what little resources are on the unclassified networks, no requirement is made for employees to train or make use of resources during times when the government is operating normally. The government’s unclassified networks are used primarily by the government for search using Internet search engines.

Then, catastrophe strikes. Suddenly, when remote access is “forced” upon them, government employees are unfamiliar and disoriented and unsure what resources their organizations have provided for them and how best to use them.

So…in the crisis of COVID-19 and in the working remote world of here and now and the future, how well-prepared are you and your organization for remote collaboration?

Probably, not very well.

Ask your people, “What does collaboration mean to you within our organization?” Some will say to create a document and to email it to all their fellow-collaborators for feedback. Others will say to forward a list of collaborators names in the message instructing the recipient to forward it to the next collaborator on the list. Others will say they have a shared drive folder location (if shared drive access is even available) where they have saved the file and sent the address to those who need it. Still others may completely violate government mandate and move the file to Dropbox or Google Apps or OneDrive. (Without some prior organizational approval, moving content to these services is a violation and in some cases considered a spillage.)

The point is that, unquestionably, you are going to get different answers.

It’s time to dictate and manage the remote work program of your organization.

All of those different answers to your question, ” What does collaboration mean to you within our organization?”, need to be reduced to one! In the interest of efficiency and good stewardship of government time and money, it is your obligation as a leader, a government employee, to give clear guidance on exactly what collaboration looks like in your organization.

Do you know what a good collaborative environment should look like? Probably not. But, it’s not your really your job to know.


First, to begin getting your arms around your best collaborative approach for your organization, research your platforms. What’s out there? Not commercial resources!

Speak to leaders within CIO who can explain what resources you have. In the five government agencies I’ve worked in, the available options varied. Some only had email. Some had email and shell access. Some had access to unclassified training resources. Some had Office365. Some had combinations of these. Finding out what your agency has is the first step.

Then, take these to your Knowledge Management office with a wishlist of your needs. Discuss a means to coordinate these options to suit your wishlist.

How to reach the pie in the sky?

Let’s say you have it all. For remote access and collaboration, you have as your unclassified content management system (CMS), Office365, into which you can login with all of 365’s apps and all the bells and whistles.

Is Office365 the platform you use when “in office” during normal operation? Or, is your “in office” CMS something like SharePoint 2010 or 2013?

Is your “UNCLASSIFIED” content and information here, on the low-side, or was it composed on a high-side network rendering it the classification of that network and requiring a government “trusted agent” to move it from the high-side to the low?

Is your Office365 flavor of SharePoint configured with functional workflows modeling your organizational processes?

Have your processes for remote approvals been defined? What is the process for delegation of approval authority when an approver is unavailable?

Have templates for specific content types, for example, Org Charts, been standardized to facilitate standardization in the interest of collaboration?

Have access rights to content been adapted for the low-side Office365?

What about official records? How will the content your organization creates be tracked for records accountability? Is your low-side content management system (SharePoint via Office365) configured to capture, track, and dispose of government records, if necessary?

Once returned to normal, what is the plan to move the low-side generated content to the high-side, if applicable?

What’s the plan for future training for future low-side, remote-access occurrences?

These are the clues to the foundation of a solid remote collaboration plan. But these clues must be followed before the next crisis occurs. There is no “returning to the building” because something was forgotten.

For more information, please contact Government Knowledge Management.

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