The objective of this evaluation was to determine the extent to which DoD Components provided access to DoD information technology and communications during the coronavirus disease–2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
In May 2006, the President issued the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan that requires Federal agencies to develop plans to maintain information technology and communications systems to continue operations during a pandemic. In response, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security (ASD[HD&GS]) issued the DoD Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza (DoD Implementation Plan) in August 2006 to ensure the continuity of essential functions in the event of a pandemic. The DoD Implementation Plan states that during a pandemic, special consideration must be given to social distancing in the workplace through teleworking. DoD Components’ pandemic plans should include the use of laptops, high-speed telecommunications links, and other systems that enable personnel to perform essential functions while teleworking. The plans should also include the requirement to test telework procedures, the impact of Government-wide mandated telework on internal networks, and backup plans for communications infrastructure.
Apart from DoD pandemic planning, the DoD Telework Policy states that telework will be actively promoted and implemented throughout the DoD in support of emergency preparedness. The policy recognizes that during a pandemic, essential and non-essential personnel and Service members may be asked to telework; therefore, periodic telework exercises are required to ensure its effectiveness in continuing operations and an efficient transition to telework in the event of a pandemic.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, DoD Components began transitioning to maximum telework in mid-March 2020. On March 18, 2020, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense issued a memorandum stating that DoD Components could execute their pandemic plans, or portions of their plans, at any time to ensure the ability to perform their essential functions.
To determine the extent to which DoD Components provided access to DoD information technology and communications during maximum telework in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we administered a 43-question survey to a sample of DoD military and civilian personnel. In August 2020, we invited 269,282 DoD military and civilian personnel to respond to our survey to share their teleworking experiences from March 15 through August 26, 2020. We received a total of 56,057 responses, comprising 7,323 military and 48,734 civilian personnel, for a 20.8 percent overall response rate. We also conducted interviews with officials from the DoD Office of the Chief Information Officer, the DoD COVID-19 Telework Readiness Task Force, and the Offices of the Chief Information Officer for 10 DoD Components to obtain their perspectives on the infrastructure established to support the increased number of teleworking personnel.
According to the 54,665 respondents who reported their telework status, the DoD transitioned 88.2 percent of respondents to full- or part-time telework from March 15, 2020 through August 26, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 11.8 percent of respondents who continued to work on site, the most common reasons provided by survey respondents for not teleworking were that their work could not be performed while teleworking, or they were not eligible to telework. Of those who teleworked, survey respondents reported problems accessing DoD Component networks, voice and video teleconference applications, and identified shortfalls in Government-furnished equipment available to DoD personnel when their Components first transitioned to maximum telework in mid-March 2020. However, the problems cited in survey responses lessened over time as the DoD increased its network availability and capacity, added voice and video conferencing applications, and purchased and distributed computer and communications equipment.
Based on the results of the survey and interviews with DoD officials, the DoD’s initial challenges occurred because some DoD Components had not fully tested whether their information systems could support Government-wide mandated telework and had not conducted telework exercises with their personnel before March 2020 as required by the DoD Implementation Plan and the DoD Telework Policy. Therefore, some DoD Components were unprepared for the network and communications limitations, as well as equipment and application shortfalls, uncovered by the transition to maximum telework. While the Marine Corps, Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) were able to immediately transition to maximum telework, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA), Defense Finance Accounting Service (DFAS), and Defense Health Agency (DHA) faced challenges during the transition.
The ability of DoD personnel to perform essential and non-essential tasks while on maximum telework depends on DoD Components’ ability to provide enough network capacity, communication tools, and equipment to enable the DoD’s essential and non-essential personnel to stay mission-ready and productive while in a telework status. Some teleworking personnel reported that they found their own alternative solutions including the use of unauthorized video conferencing applications and personal laptops, printers, and cell phones to complete their work because some DoD Components were unprepared for maximum telework. However, using unauthorized applications or sharing DoD information over improperly secured devices, even temporarily, increases the risk of exposing sensitive departmental information that could impact national security and DoD missions.
Overall, DoD Components and the majority of survey respondents expressed positive maximum telework experiences. Specifically, 88.1 percent of survey respondents stated that their productivity level remained the same or increased during maximum telework, regardless of their Component’s initial telework challenges. Many survey respondents reported a desire to telework regularly in the future (37,146 responses) and expressed appreciation for commuting less often (27,711 responses), better work‑life balance (25,508 responses), and more flexible work hours (22,461 responses).
We recommend that the ASD(HD&GS) revise the DoD Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza to update planning assumptions with the use of telework for essential and non-essential personnel, align the DoD Implementation Plan with the DoD Telework Policy, and require DoD Components to update their plans to include revised assumptions regarding telework for personnel and the resources required to support the teleworking workforce.
We recommend that the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (USD[P]), in coordination with the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, establish management oversight procedures to verify that DoD Components have performed the testing, training, and exercise requirements of the DoD Implementation Plan and the DoD Telework Policy. The oversight procedures should assess the ability of DoD Components to support Government-wide mandated telework, including the results of tests of network and communications systems and telework exercises with personnel.
Management Comments and Our Response
The Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (DUSD[P]), responding for the USD(P) and the ASD(HD&GS) did not respond to the recommendation to require DoD Components to update their Pandemic Plans to include revised assumptions regarding telework for personnel and the resources required to support the teleworking workforce. Therefore, the recommendation is unresolved. We request that the ASD(HD&GS) provide comments on the final report.
The DUSD(P) did not agree or disagree with the other two recommendations in the report. However, the DUSD(P) stated that the ASD(HD&GS) would work with the Joint Staff and the U.S. Northern Command to include the use of telework for essential and non‑essential personnel in the Functional Campaign Plan–Pandemics and Infectious Diseases, which will replace the DoD Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza, and align the plan with the DoD Telework Policy. In addition, the DUSD(P) stated that the ASD(HD&GS) would also work with the Joint Staff to include the use of telework for essential and non-essential personnel in the Global Integration Framework-Pandemics and Infectious Diseases.
Furthermore, the DUSD(P) stated that her office would support and advocate for oversight procedures to verify that DoD Components performed the testing, training, and exercise requirements of the Global Integration Framework–Pandemics and Infectious Diseases, the Functional Campaign Plan–Pandemics and Infectious Diseases, the DoD Telework Policy, and the Pandemic Plans. Therefore, the recommendations are resolved, but will remain open until the ASD(HD&GS) updates the Functional Campaign Plan–Pandemics and Infectious Diseases and the Global Integration Framework-Pandemics and Infectious Diseases to include the use of telework for essential and non-essential personnel and USD(P) provides oversight procedures for verifying that DoD Components performed the required testing, training, and exercises.
This report is the product of Proj. No. D2020-D000CU-0125.000.