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4 CIOs on a year of COVID-19

As a novel coronavirus started sweeping across the United States a year ago, it dawned quickly on state chief information officers that their offices and the governments they supported — like countless schools, businesses and organizations around the world — would have to quickly empty out and equip themselves and their customer agencies to keep working remotely.

While acquiring enough laptops, VPN licenses, video conferencing tools and other hardware and software was challenging enough, it also fell on many CIOs to address so many other issues laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment systems, crushed by record-busting levels of demand, had to be stripped down and rebuilt in days. Other public-facing services like motor vehicles and nutrition assistance needed to be delivered virtually. Contact-tracing systems, an attempt to track the spread of the virus, needed to be built from scratch — sometimes with the help of giant tech corporations, sometimes not.

The events of the past 12 months have also put IT agencies at the forefront of their respective state governments unlike at any other moment. Reflecting on a year-plus of responding to a pandemic that’s killed 542,000 Americans and sickened nearly 30 million, four state CIOs shared with StateScoop some of what they’ve learned about tech’s role in government and how the health crisis has impacted them.

“People have had to do things that are outside the ordinary me under this emergency situation,” says longtime Connecticut CIO Mark Raymond. “We’ve done the same on the technology side.”

For other CIOs, like Indiana’s Tracy Barnes, the pandemic has defined their entire tenures. “As painful as it’s been, for me to come in at at a time when technology was at its at its highest need its most appreciated level, I could not have asked for a better time to take over,” says Barnes, who stepped into his role on March 6, 2020, five days before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.

Now, with COVID-19 possibly receding with the distribution of vaccines — which has vexed some state IT agencies — CIOs are starting to envision the future of state government. But realizing the post-pandemic environment won’t simply be a matter of laptop supplies and software licenses. The crisis has also underscored how tech decisions directly impact constituents’ lives.

“One of the things that I think came through the pandemic is we know that we rely on technology heavily, and we certainly did in order to be able to deliver, but at the end of the day, these are human issues,” says Texas CIO Amanda Crawford. “And how do we respond in that compassionate way as a government?”

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

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Mark Raymond, Connecticut

Mark Raymond, Connecticut

What has your agency been through over the past year?

People have had to do things that are outside the ordinary under this emergency situation. We’ve done the same on the technology side. Whether it’s providing assistance to agencies on vetting new solutions and helping them implement them — even though that’s not really our responsibility — we saw the need to provide resources to agencies that are in demand like unemployment. The flexibility to plug into those IT demands across the state has been sort of one of the fundamental pieces. Besides, you know, getting everyone working remotely and putting more transactions online.

Connecticut was hit so hard so early on.

It was a bunch of work in the very beginning when we were standing up like emergency triage centers. The mobile hospitals were set up when it was the very first stages of a pandemic. So we had our network and facilities to enable these remote locations in concert with hospital partners and other folks, bringing the technology that you already had nearby or in place, but enabling those things to be connected. We were about 10% into our cloud migration, moving from on-premise emails to the cloud. And then we just jumped all in and pushed all the chips into the middle of that, including rolling out collaboration tools.

Was that tough to implement at the time?

We held regular, daily and on weekends, coaching sessions on how to use these tools in how to get people up the learning curve on virtual meetings and collaboration. And we then quickly moved into contact tracing. We got people working from home and stabilized. From the early stages, that was what we were focused on.

Do you feel like your profile has been raised over the past year?

Absolutely. Being involved in assisting agencies in some of these fundamental changes, there’s been numerous conversations after the fact like “hey, I didn’t recognize we needed the help” as we’re blazing into these new areas. We couldn’t have done it without not just our central IT, but the combined capabilities together.

How have you been doing personally?

Because we’ve been working on this optimization effort, we’re focusing on our culture. And some core behaviors can degrade in a virtual world, but they’re part of what we’re trying to build.  The behaviors are simple: Be one team, make it better, build the outcome. And when we bubble it all back to that, it provides us this grounding together. We know that the public is on our team, the agencies are on our team. We’ve had numerous virtual meetings with our entire team to let them know that they’re heard, that we hear them, sharing with them because we don’t have the touch of physical. I’m jazzed as ever. There are some days we all get tired, but I’m not doing it at any different frequency than beforehand.

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Amanda Crawford, Texas

Amanda Crawford, Texas

There’s probably not a brief way to do it, but what’s the past year been like for the Texas Department of Information Resources as it’s helped the state government with the pandemic?

I would say in many ways this has been both the shortest year and longest year that I can certainly remember. As you know, Texas has a federated model for IT, but we serve as a technology thought leader and setting the state strategy as a resource, and we have our technology contracting. The pandemic really didn’t fundamentally impact our priorities because DIR is solely focused on making sure that government agencies have the tools they need to provide Texans with that secure, modern, responsive services, which is what Texas agencies needed. For us it was an opportunity to put all of these tools and services that we’d had in place into action on a wider scale and on a much accelerated pace than we would normally see.

Was it tough helping agencies switch to remote work or making sure Texans could access their government services?

At first the biggest challenge was helping government switch to remote work, just with some of the basic technologies a lot of agencies don’t have, like laptops and headsets. We were able to leverage a lot of the contracts we have in place with our partnerships with industry to be a laptop matchmaker of sorts to connect folks to those devices. We are the internet service provider for state agencies, so we doubled our bandwidth capacity to be able to handle the increased traffic. And setting agencies up to conduct remote work, whether it’s through VPN or other technologies they didn’t have. Then we saw it was a matter of making sure that agencies have those scalable, reliable applications to be able to continue to serve Texans. So that came to moving some legacy systems rather quickly either fully into a cloud or partially. And then of course cyber.

Right. Obviously you had the huge attack in 2019, but there were other incidents over the past year, not just ransomware. There are so many added concerns with secure and remote workforces and digital services.

It’s always top of mind, and talking to practitioners, they’re always thinking of security. And the question is always, you know, have I done enough? It never seems like it is. We expanded that attack surface when we had more government working remotely. And so, so there was a lot of education there, there was a lot of outreach. We felt competent in our networks and the walls we have built around that, but we worry more about endpoints now that we have so many more of those. That’s a whole new challenge when you can’t have everybody in a room together.

Do you still have a lot of people remote or are people coming back to the office?

Speaking for my agency, we’re probably better suited to work remotely, being a technology agency, and frankly we’ve been busier than ever. I would say on any given day, we’re somewhere between 20 to 50% in any of our offices. But the health and safety of my employees is always going to be a priority. One of the things that I think came through the pandemic is we know that we rely on technology heavily, and we certainly did in order to be able to deliver, but at the end of the day, these are human issues. So when folks are concerned about unemployment and their benefits, and concerned about not being able to pay their bills and being able to feed their family, that’s a human issue and technology is not going to fix that. Knowing that we can provide solutions for technology, that can help address some of those issues, but we also have to remember the underlying human element. And how do we respond in that compassionate way as a government?

Do you think COVID-19 has raised the profile of tech in state government?

There’s always been a challenge as you could get the IT leaders in agencies, they understand the value of IT, and they understand the importance of modernizing and securing and having these agile, flexible modern ways to deliver for our constituents, but translating IT to the business deciders, the appropriators, that’s not always an easy thing. I think part of that is on IT leadership, and we’re not always great at translating and translating that need. Well, the pandemic demonstrated that need very clearly and demonstrated the need and importance of modernizing legacy applications and why we need to have them ready and ready to scale should something come up. Our legislature meets every other year. They’re in session right now, and it’s a very different tone in the conversations that we have with the members of our legislature. Governor [Greg] Abbott’s budget priorities included modernization of IT and specifically cybersecurity.

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Tracy Barnes, Indiana

Tracy Barnes, Indiana

What’s the past year been like at the Indiana Office of Technology?

We keep talking about getting back to normal before the pandemic, and since my entire existence at [Indiana Office of Technology] has been during the pandemic, this is normal to me. It’s been very high-paced. Lots of good energy and excitement around technology and support for the growing needs and demand. The issues within the challenges within unemployment contracts raising increases in needs and social services, vaccine management, all of those, it was just the perfect storm of challenges across the largest and most impactful agencies all at one time, while still trying figure out the best and most secure people working from random places throughout the state. I think we’ve done a great job in coordinating, communicating between our teams and helping our agencies continue focusing on delivering their mission while still respecting the need for good security and a good reliability within our system.

So what was it like stepping in right as the pandemic took hold?

I don’t want to say very easy, but it’s not as complicated to make sure the three buildings of downtown Indianapolis for state government are secure and protected and monitored. But when you send 12,000 people home, now your endpoints grow exponentially and security becomes a major concern and the question becomes how do we ensure that people both have the assets they need but we’re still doing our due diligence in protecting the privacy of our data and our systems. And you add that in with the folks that don’t have access at home, the broadband challenges and issues that have continued to face the nation as a whole.

How do you balance it all then?

There wasn’t a day when you could say the unemployment system is more important than contact tracing. They both have that same level of importance on a daily basis. Making sure that we had the right people involved, and our workforce was strong in wanting to put in that overtime to support those agencies and those growing demands and challengers that were being presented. If it wasn’t volume for the unemployment system, then it was fraud or other types of concerns or a call center support. With contact tracing, if it wasn’t getting a system in place within two weeks, it was how we make sure we have the the agents able to connect and log in, and put the information in properly so that we can validate our dashboards. I inherited a very good team that was very forward thinking in putting some of the systems in place that have been a cornerstone for us.

There’ve been so many changes to how state government works. Which ones will stick around?

I think we as a government have seen that folks are able to still be productive from home and not necessarily needing to be physically on site. There’ll be hybrid and variations that’ll go forward, but hopefully some opportunity to increase our reach with potential workforce capabilities. Our state government is very central to Indianapolis. We did a really good job with a few agencies in finding ways to support both in-person and online services that has actually provided better logistical throughput and support for our satellite office facilities. And for me, our Office of Technology has been asked to get more aggressive into the applications that our agencies are publishing. Because of the looming cybersecurity issues that are out there, that’ll actually end up being something that we’ll continue to live off of and support.

You had been in state government for a while before the pandemic, including in the governor’s office. How will you look back on the past year?

I’m going to answer this very cautiously. The pandemic has probably been my best friend. You know what I mean? As painful as it’s been, for me to come in at at a time when technology was at its at its highest need, I could not have asked for a better time to take over and get back in the tech space. I anticipated I would need to do some some aggressive lobbying to increase the importance of technology and cybersecurity and things of that nature. The pandemic itself brought all of those challenges to the forefront, and made them top of mind for elected officials across the nation. Going through the summer and all of the social unrest and the challenges of racial injustice, we responded as well, between identifying ways to help manage our networks better and communications support in the governor’s office. And then election security, the big SolarWinds breach at the end of the year. It’s almost like having seven years of dog years and one year of technology that ultimately will end up being a win for our citizens and our agencies across the state.

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Alan Cunningham, Nevada

Alan Cunningham, Nevada

How has the pandemic changed IT’s role with the State of Nevada?

It’s really encouraging how people in general have learned about technology and what technology can do. They’ve picked up the baton and run with it. We had all this technology beforehand. We had video conference, but there was never really any drive before to put together teams on an electronic platform. And they’ve really stepped up. Not just in IT, but in the attorney general’s office, courtrooms, legislative hearings. Would you have put a $1,000 bet that we would have remote budget hearings?

Maybe not. But what’s it going to look like afterward?

The first thing we have to do is acknowledge it’s not going back to a new normal. It’s going back to a new different. We’re not going to have all these people in a single building. We have team members who are 100% remote. It makes sense not just from a financial perspective, but there are things you need to put in place to support that. You have to be able to put in a team remotely, put in HR grievances remotely, apply for training. We need to take a good holistic look and figure out. There may be some quick wins on a financial perspective, but we need to look at this long term. Government is built for mediocrity. We’re not designed to be agile. We’re not designed to be innovative. But in the second and third quarters last year, contracts were done in days that would’ve taken months. Why is that not the norm?

So are you worried about government reverting to the pre-pandemic ways?

It’s happening already. We need to take a serious look at ourselves and say what was the difference between those two processes. What did we lose between the original and the emergency process, if anything?

Nevada’s interesting in that the state government is hundreds of miles away from Las Vegas, where three-quarters of the state lives. You also have a lot of small remote towns. Remote work seems like it’d be good.

It can improve services. What’s going to improve the lives of our citizens is having improved access to those services. We see advantages to mobile work. We have agencies like the DMV looking at virtual field offices. That’s going to be part of the new different. Connectivity is one of our biggest things. We have this huge digital inequity. It’s actually a huge analogy for the whole country. Why can’t I consume my government services the same way I consume Amazon? If I go to the DMV and change my license, that should change in taxation, change in health services, change in unemployment. That’s the expectation, but it’s not the reality. The sticking point is digital ID. There’s a lot of people who don’t want it. You have to sign on to 40 different websites to get stuff done.

You’ve been critical of Nevada’s federated setup. Do you think this past year will convince the state’s leaders to think about consolidation?

I would like to think so, but politically it’s a hot potato. There are economies of scale and plenty of examples of how money is saved and services are improved because of that orchestration. I tend to stay away from the centralization argument because it raises political hackles. We don’t have the tax revenues we had. If we can be upfront with our citizens, the majority of sound-minded people will be: “I can see that.” You hired me to do a job, this is how I’m doing the job.

This story is part of StateScoop & EdScoop’s special report on one year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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