Over the past few months I’ve worked with multiple teams at HORNE as we’ve assisted State and Local Governments determine how to spend the funds provided to them through the Coronavirus Relief Fund (“CRF”) that was a result of the CARES act, which appropriated $150 billion to the fund to be directed to U.S. State, Local, Territorial, and Tribal governments. The U.S. Treasury issued broad guidance on the permissible use of the funds but left much of the determination up to the needs and creative minds of the States. With only a few rules to follow:
- expenditures are necessary and incurred due to the coronavirus,
- costs were not accounted for in the most recent budget approved as of March 27, 2020, and
- costs were incurred during the period March 1, 2020 and December 30, 2020.
So what have the recipients done with the funds? Much of what you would expect: they have allocated significant portions to rebuild economies directly through reimbursement of payroll expenses, unemployment programs, equipment purchase for COVID testing sites, medical supplies, masks, and many other initiatives and efforts to restore their economies in a stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive way. Naturally, many states are turning to technology to adapt to the COVID-19 environment and prepare for an immediate future of socially distant training and increased need for technology to support various initiatives.
Based on what we have seen, I want to walk through a few ways that CRF funding can be used to leverage technology within your community and make your organization more secure.
Many states are focusing on efforts to expand broadband to rural and low-income communities, based on the “digital divide” that has formed as internet access correlates with income. This is especially prevalent as students need access to the internet to complete homework and workers need access to work remotely. As the pandemic continues to force some schools and businesses to move their activities online, States recognize that widespread internet access is critical to the success of local communities. This growing need has resulted in a strong commitment to the use of CRF funds towards broadband.
Improving Distance Learning
We are seeing IT departments in multiple states work to improve distance learning initiatives. Some are investing in virtual platforms (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.), and of course, there are many opportunities to allocate funds for the purchase and sometimes reimbursement of devices to facilitate learning outside of classrooms (e.g. laptops, tablets, WiFi devices and transmitters). Some strategies focus on funding the professional development of virtual platform educators, including technology stipends for teachers, and significant allocations to support virtual social-emotional learning frameworks.
Connecting the Elderly and the Disabled
Several states have initiated programs designed to connect seniors living in long term care facilities to their families through technology. States are purchasing tablets and other equipment to distribute to these seniors in order to mitigate the impact of social isolation due to quarantine by enhancing the interactions with our elderly. Additionally, funds have been allocated to assist individuals with disabilities in purchasing telework equipment to adapt to the change in the working environment due to Covid-19.
Implementing Cybersecurity Strategy
As we would expect, CRF funds are also being used for cybersecurity measures such as adding or replacing firewalls, hiring MSSP support, buying additional software and licenses to support remote work, remote staff training, and obtaining on-call third party support for large-scale incidents. It doesn’t take a long news search to see the reports of increased security incidents and cyber attacks during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has encouraged many State and Local Governments to take this opportunity to focus on strategically mitigating cyber risk.
We are even seeing States looking into ways to use Data Analytics enhancements to report on COVID-19 cases and CRF spending details across their state.
There’s no question as to the opportunity that the CARES Act Funding is bringing for technological advancement and innovate across the country. The question is: will the opportunity be fully seized? A proactive approach to information security can allow for the benefits of the CRF funds to be experienced for years to come.
The next logical question that comes to mind: how will these initiatives be secured, and is that being considered in these plans? From my experience, security is often considered too late in the conversation, and it’s up to the IT and cybersecurity experts in the room to ensure that security objectives are a focus as States implement new technology. Maintaining and improving technological access in a newly remote culture is crucial, and CRF funds make this possible for many States and Local Governments. However, security must be prioritized in the design of digital initiatives, or larger problems could result from these initiatives.
This is the perfect time to revisit your organization’s current strategies related to cybersecurity and the potential to leverage available CRF funds that fall into the categories from the Treasury. If thought through well, this could be an incredible opportunity for secure technological advancement for our organizations and communities.