CIOs hope pandemic gives tech 'permanent seat at the table'

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The COVID-19 pandemic’s been as rough on state and city governments as it has been on any sector, with many of the unforeseen demands falling on IT agencies suddenly tasked with scaling up unemployment systems, developing data platforms to track infection rates and coronavirus testing and keeping newly remote workforces humming.

And though there’s no clear end to the health crisis in sight, a group of chief information officers agreed during a panel discussion Thursday that the pandemic — perhaps more than any event in recent memory — has cemented the role that technology plays in city and state government.

“IT has not only stepped up to the plate, we will have a permanent seat at the table,” Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers said during the discussion, part of an online cybersecurity summit hosted by the State of Michigan.

Rodgers said tech agencies’ heightened relevance didn’t take long to emerge, especially as his team had to assist other Ohio agencies early during the crisis with tasks like increasing the capacity of the state’s unemployment insurance system and scaling up the number of mobile devices and VPN licenses so state employees could continue working through Gov. Mike DeWine’s springtime lockdown orders. All that scrambling, he said, was necessary to maintain public confidence in state government at a trying time.

“Respect, you can lose it by the bucket, but you only gain it back in drops,” said Rodgers, still working out of his basement home office. “We can all attest in those early days, our systems weren’t built for pandemics. They were crashing because they couldn’t take the volume. We had to innovate on the fly.”

The event’s moderator, Michigan CIO Brom Stibitz, agreed with Rodgers, saying that other government agencies no longer see IT shops merely as help desks, but as vital to the continuity of operations.

“In the past, maybe they looked at IT and said here’s a tool,” he said. “Over the last six months, it’s really changed to say this is an essential part of our business.”

The change has also been felt in cities. Beth Niblock, the chief information officer for Detroit, said the additional burdens on her 146-person team exacerbated what technology can do to serve low-income residents in her city, which was hit especially hard in the pandemic’s initial wave last spring. Niblock, who doubles as Detroit’s top emergency management and homeland security official, was initially tapped to be one of the leaders of the city’s COVID-19 response. One of the first challenges, she said, was to establish a testing regime that could be expanded in a city that’s 80% Black and has a stark digital divide.

Niblock said her team worked with local vendors using open-source software to build a data platform that could feed information back to physicians and hospitals. Once testing became more available, the city was able to offer it to all residents for free.

“You have to meet your citizens where they are,” she said. “We know from the Covid experiences that the people with the least resources in most dense housing situations were hit the hardest.”

But across cities and states, the CIOs speaking Thursday said IT’s newfound prominence is likely to be permanent. Like Michigan’s Stibitz, Indiana CIO Tracy Barnes also started in his job in early March, just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread across the United States. He said his department’s raised profile should last.

“I don’t think there’s been this much respect and attention on technology since Y2K,” Barnes said. “Not that it’s an essential part of the business, but that the business has been refined to operate around technology. Just looking at us as a utility does not do it justice.”

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Chief Information Officer (CIO), COVID-19, Detroit, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio
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