State and county chief information officers huddled Friday during an informal brainstorming session at the National Association of Counties’ legislative conference to talk about cybersecurity, workforce recruitment and other key areas of focus.
Throughout the so-called “information exchange,” participants underscored that state and county governments must concentrate on finding ways to work together if they’re going to address the growing challenges facing their IT operations.
Leading the was a trio of top local-level IT leaders: Phil Bertolini, the chief information officer for Oakland County, Michigan; National Association of State Chief Information Officers Executive Director Doug Robinson; and Ohio’s CIO Stu Davis.
Here’s the top-five takeaways from the talk:
FirstNet implementation worries
While all in attendance could agree on the importance of FirstNet — the project to construct a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety workers — many CIOs admitted that the effort contains plenty of stumbling blocks.
In particular, Davis said he’s had trouble partnering with the private sector to build the network in Ohio’s rural areas, since “people can’t see the business model” of how it might prove cost effective for them down the line.
Indeed, Robinson noted that he frequently hears from state CIOs about challenges with the “financial viability” of these rural efforts.
“There are a number of state CIOs who continue to be skeptical of the business model,” Robinson said.
Working around the workforce crunch
Governments across the country face serious budget limitations as they struggle to find talented IT workers, Robinson and Bertolini said.
While base salaries for entry-level IT professionals in Bertolini’s Oakland County, Michigan, are on track with those in the private sector, private sector salaries rapidly outpace those in government after only a few years. But Bertolini said he knocked the 30 percent IT job vacancy rate down to 12 percent by getting creative: He transitioned to an open office environment, introduced more levels of incremental raises and offered the promise of a better work-life balance to potential workers.
“You can do cool innovative things with technology [here], but you can still be home to have dinner with your family,” Bertolini said. “I hate to say it, but [tech companies] are hiring by the thousands to burn people out.”
Ultimately, Bertolini said he focused on recruiting two types of workers: recent college graduates who stay for about three years, and “innovators” who want to slow down and have “a family and a real life” after working with high-profile tech companies.
Due to the workforce salary crunch, many IT departments are forced to supplement their workforce with contractors — a solution Robinson said was more expensive than just hiring salaried employees.
One audience member representing a Maryland county recommended county governments “end the war on contractors” and “just go with it” to maintain the workforce county IT departments need.
With the constantly increasing number of cyberthreats facing states and localities, network security was a hot topic in the discussion.
Davis said that Ohio once faced two breach attempts per month several years ago — now, he thinks that number is more like five per day.
Yet despite the growing importance of the issue, Robinson worries that many workers across state agencies still don’t follow cybersecurity standards, causing big headaches for CIOs.
“The lack of policy compliance is one of the weakest areas of state government right now,” Robinson said.
David Jordan, chief information security officer for the Washington, D.C., suburb of Arlington County, Virginia, echoed those comments, and added that he felt that localities around the nation aren’t equipped to secure a burgeoning new area of technology: the Internet of Things.
“IoT is a tsunami waiting to hit us,” Jordan said. “It’s going to be part of critical infrastructure for every home in the nation soon.”
State and county officials agree that collaboration makes government more efficient, but many struggle with the mechanics of making it happen, Davis said.
“Everybody at the state seems to know what the county does, and everybody at the county seems to know what the state does,” Davis said. “And both are wrong.”
When he served as Ohio’s geographic information officer, Davis helped the state tap the rich data that’s collected at the county level. He said he worked to “create a dialogue between the counties and the state” and then focused on finding money that could help establish a pipeline that brings counties’ datasets to the state.
Since he became Ohio’s CIO and led an initiative to bring most of the state’s IT operations into one spot, Davis said he has continued to promote that collaboration between state and county. In fact, Cuyahoga County, Ohio recently moved its production efforts into the state data center.
“Now we have other counties that are contacting us about the potential for running their environment in our data center,” Davis said. “That key is making sure you know the right person to get to talk with to move through that process.”
Drone regulation turbulence
How to use and regulate drones continues to divide state and local CIOs, but IT leaders in attendance could find common ground on some facets of the issue.
Namely, all agreed that the discussions of unmanned aerial vehicles is politically fraught, making it difficult for IT workers hoping to use drones to make relatively routine jobs a little bit easier for the government.
“People perceive these things to look like Predator drones that the military uses,” Robinson said. “But CIOs are using them to try and improve state operations and for the public safety benefits.”
Davis said his state is among those using drones for those sorts of processes, with workers starting to use UAVs for safety inspections of bridges and water towers, which previously required them to scale those structures at often unpleasant heights.
Bertolini also pointed to the potential mapping benefits of the technology, but worried that many localities don’t even try to start using drones due to the public discussion surrounding them.
“During an election year, folks are wondering, is that good to bring up?” Bertolini said. “Drones have numerous benefits for GIS, but many almost don’t want to tackle them because of that.”