The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing new clarity to the critical nature of effective technology leadership in state government. At its annual conference, held virtually this week, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers released The Agile State CIO: Leading in a Time of Uncertainty, their 11th annual survey of technology leaders across the country. Representing the anonymized responses of 47 state and territory CIOs, the survey tackled issues including broadband, emerging technologies and digital government.
Panelist and report co-author Grant Thornton Principal Graeme Finley, along with NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson, outlined the fact that the pandemic has highlighted how important state CIOs are in enabling the work of state government. Finley and Robinson were joined on the panel by Tennessee Chief Information Officer Stephanie Dedmon and Vermont Chief Information Officer and Agency Secretary John Quinn to offer their perspectives on the report’s findings.
COVID-Inspired Tech: Will It Last?
Many have described the pandemic as an accelerator for innovation. Technologies that CIOs were having trouble gaining much support for were suddenly on the fast track. One survey question asked CIOs to identify tech first brought to bear in response to COVID-19. Seventy-six percent cited virtual agents, or chatbots, to handle the influx of public inquiries, while 53 percent named mobile apps related to contact tracing/exposure notification. Another technology to support additional demand — voicebots to support call center interactions — registered as new tech for 40 percent of respondents.
“[The pandemic] really expedited some things we wanted to do, which was a positive,” Dedmon said, adding that agencies became effective advocates for adding services to the recently launched MyTN app in order to meet citizen needs.
Tennessee also found itself in an enviable position when it came to transitioning state employees to working from home. The state already had remote work policies in place, leaving Dedmon and her staff to focus on scaling up their capabilities to support more people.
Quinn too got a jump on preparations, laying the foundation in February by preparing remote management tools, aligning procurement vehicles, coordinating with vendors and developing “how to” materials online to coach staff on getting up and running from their homes. Since the outbreak, Quinn noted that agencies have stepped up their use of data analytics tools, like Power BI.
“It’s been business-changing in the way that they’ve evolved to be able to use those tools,” Quinn said.
Survey respondents at large identified a number of business processes, practices or investments they felt would outlive the pandemic, with remote work coming in out front, having largely proved its viability to former skeptics. Ranking two through five were expanded use of collaboration platforms and remote meetings, increased attention on digital government services/citizen experience, investments in broadband expansion/adoption and increased priority and investment in legacy modernization.
While the pandemic and the limited physical access to government buildings to conduct business may have supercharged digital transformation efforts, many such initiatives had some solid work complete before COVID-19 became widely known.
Not surprisingly, responses to the survey were nearly universal in stating that the No. 1 driver for the push toward digital government is a better online experience for citizens. The next most popular drivers got broad support as well: optimizing operations and lowering costs (73 percent); increased public participation and engagement (64 percent); better collaboration among state agencies (52 percent); and providing more opportunities for innovation (48 percent).
A new priority for Tennessee’s MyTN digital services app, mentioned above, is more marketing of the app to encourage broader citizen adoption. As for Vermont’s digital government work, the IT agency secured funding this year for a statewide business portal that serves as a single, digital front door. Quinn hopes it will go live within the next six months. Simultaneously, the state is making great strides in upgrading its websites so they are responsive, aiming for 90 percent of them to hit that threshold by the end of the calendar year.
Notably, the survey backs up the need for efforts like these. Sixty-five percent of respondents are seeing tangible benefits of their digital transformation work.
Narrowing the digital divide and ensuring everyone is online is a perennial concern for state IT, but not one that necessarily falls directly under the CIO’s purview. This year’s NASCIO survey found that while 73 percent of state CIOs report being part of a statewide team involved in strategic broadband planning, just 23 percent lead that planning. However, since the ability for citizens to access the services IT provides depends on their ability to get online, broadband expansion is critical to getting other initiatives off the ground.
Quinn sits on a statewide commission that develops Vermont’s 10-year telecom plan, and he hopes to see major strides in broadband over the next year. In Tennessee, Dedmon explained, the broadband expansion is overseen by the Department of Economic and Community Development and IT’s role is “fairly minimal.” She said the state has made a portion of their CARES funding available for broadband, a timely solution given that 88 percent of those NASCIO surveyed cited funding as one of the five most important elements in broadband strategy.
Another problem, Robinson pointed out, is that even if that funding is available to put in the fiber and extend to underserved areas, the people who live in those places might not be able to afford to connect. Quinn introduced a third funding concern, which is that it isn’t always profitable for companies to expand broadband even if the state does have resources available since it might serve so few customers in far-flung areas.
While everyone agrees that the Internet is essential, particularly in 2020, these are issues that will likely persist. Thanks to COVID-19, and the huge numbers of people now working and learning from home, Quinn said, the digital divide “has never been more front and center.”
When it comes to emerging technologies, Finley pointed to an interesting shift in this year’s survey indicating that while innovations like the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles have in the past been looked at as beneficial to citizens, state governments are now talking about using emerging tech to improve the state employee experience. The top two categories cited as being the most impactful in the next three to five years were artificial intelligence (61 percent) and low-code application development (33 percent). Notably, Finley said, the impact of both has really been seen the last six months.
Quinn’s experience during the pandemic has proven that true. The Vermont Agency of Digital Services, for example, was able to stand up an unemployment insurance system in just 11 days using low code. This has helped Quinn’s department build credibility with other state agencies that were previously skeptical of new technologies because those solutions were ready when they needed them.
Automation has certainly been on the rise in the past six months as well, as governments have moved to make routine online services as accessible as possible via chatbots, which has been true in not only state government, but at the county level as well. Dedmon said that Tennessee is also in general looking to automation to streamline work for employees by reducing or eliminating repetitive processes that could be pushed to technology. By redirecting those staff resources, they can make the job experience for state employees more rewarding. She said the state is focusing on building a catalog of those processes with potential for automation and will be seeking an enterprise solution.
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