State Leadership of the Year winners talk COVID-19 challenges

The 2021 StateScoop 50 Awards recognize the top people and projects in state government IT. In interviews with StateScoop, winners of this year’s prizes look back at their work over the past year, most of which was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week, winners of the StateScoop 50 State Leadership of the Year winners share their lessons learned during the health crisis, their biggest challenges during the pandemic and the technologies and practices they believe to be underappreciated in government.

Previous interviews in the 2021 StateScoop 50 Awards include winners in the GoldenGov category.

Reporting by Emily Bamforth, Benjamin Freed, Ryan Johnston, Jake Williams and Colin Wood. These interviews were edited and condensed.

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DeAngela Burns-Wallace, chief information technology officer of Kansas

DeAngela Burns-Wallace, chief information technology officer of Kansas

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

Making time to strategize and plan can make all the difference not only in execution but buy-in from staff and stakeholders. We get so caught up in the day-to-day that we don’t always have enough time to clear the roadmap and ensure everyone is on the same page. The pandemic helped us take stock, regroup and realign toward common goals.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the pandemic?

Balancing the ever-changing and unprecedented business and IT needs and keeping our staff whole — physically and mentally. We were called on to do things to support business operations that we have not done before or at speed for which we don’t usually operate. We met the challenge and supported the delivery of services to Kansans across the state but it was important to not meet this demand at the cost of staff themselves.

What’s an underappreciated IT practice or technology that more people should know about?

Design thinking. Over the years I have learned more and more from colleagues at Stanford d.school. Design thinking can be defined as iterative processes in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At its core, it is the belief that human-centered design is powerful. The power lies in the teams, leaders, partners and stakeholders working in more effective, collaborative and strategic ways.

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Greg Kunz, strategy business office chief at the Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare

Greg Kunz, strategy business office chief at the Idaho Dept. of Health and Welfare

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

It strengthened many of my previous convictions. One is don’t put off anything that you can do right now. Do the thing and understand what the next actionable task is. It’s one of my bylines: what’s the next actionable task? Because time was compressed and the level of understanding of a problem and ability to construct a solution was so difficult, I think it just added more fuel to this fire.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the pandemic?

The pandemic challenged us in the areas of brainstorming, collaboration and creativity. And the reason why is that many of the tasks that were related to ‘take this thing and do this thing’ or ‘move this thing from this place to this place’ were things that could be done remotely. But the creative problem solving, the solutions that require collaboration or coordination, were significantly more difficult because the bandwidth of interaction between people was just not great. And if you had new people it was harder, and obviously if you had relationships that existed with vendors or others it was less difficult. Time was a constant pressure point because things took longer and the challenge was that timing was really compressed.

What’s an underappreciated IT practice or technology that helped you during the pandemic?

This is going to sound weird, but connecting to people. Talking and connecting to people is the single most important thing that I think we could do. The phone, for example. We do video conferencing and it’s kind of crappy, and I don’t think it’s come into its own yet. If I’m solving a big problem, how do you connect and talk to someone about what the problem is? Technology loves to put a technical solution in a place, but it’s less confident about understanding the full problem that needs to be solved, which requires a business construct around the problem. Don’t just go throw technology at it.

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Tony McGaughey, CIO of Georgia Dept. of Public Health

Tony McGaughey, CIO of Georgia Dept. of Public Health

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

Our biggest one is moving to the cloud, which we had already started prior to the pandemic. We accelerated that. Had we not had access to the cloud, it would have been a lot harder for us to stand up the applications that we had to stand up during the pandemic.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the pandemic?

The biggest challenge was developing and implementing pandemic-specific applications in a very short time period. We developed and implemented three different applications during the pandemic and they were all developed and implemented in a six-to-eight-week time span. Normally, it takes about nine months to do, because you take a little longer for requirements gathering and the development piece, but we had to do that in a much condensed time frame.

What’s an underappreciated IT practice or technology that helped you during the pandemic?

Our monitoring of our infrastructure so that we can be proactive and prevent issues from happening, as opposed to reactive. We were in the process of rolling out some monitoring systems last year and so we had it for some of our applications but not on others. The difference was huge. You can see that a server was starting to have issues before the server went down.

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Corey Mercy, deputy CTO of North Carolina Dept. of Health and Human Services

Corey Mercy, deputy CTO of North Carolina Dept. of Health and Human Services

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

The most significant takeaway, and the most transformative, is around cloud computing and the agility that cloud computing has provided for us. We especially during the pandemic stood up numerous technologies to help support our response and help inform our leadership teams and provide services to citizens of North Carolina. And if it weren’t for the flexibility and the scalability of cloud computing, I think we would have been very challenged to provide some of those services as rapidly as we did.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the pandemic?

Having the depth of resources and talent to deliver on needs. Probably the other one is speed to delivery. There were lots of needs and sometimes things were a bit ambiguous as the pandemic was evolving and more information was becoming known. There were evolving and changing requirements where we had to have flexibility in being able to meet and understand those needs.

What’s an underappreciated IT practice or technology that helped you during the pandemic?

I would probably still stick with cloud computing as a game changer from a tech perspective and something that should not go underappreciated. The other piece, from a leadership perspective, is the spirit of innovation and that in tough times it requires us to be very innovative, especially when things may be a little bit ambiguous or where things might be new. Approaching these opportunities or challenges or needs and looking at it as an opportunity to innovate and leverage technology to help meet those needs.

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Rick Rieping, senior director of applications delivery and support for Colorado

Rick Rieping, senior director of applications delivery and support for Colorado

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

The pandemic really became a shift of focus and for my team it became more of a level setting across all agencies and that all agencies are now equally as important. There isn’t one that stands above the rest. As we come out of the pandemic, we’re really trying to figure out how to normalize our operations, rebalancing of the staff across the agencies to support those trying to come up with more of a shared-services kind of model that we can use within the state.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the pandemic?

Our teams at one point time were a part of the agencies and about 10 to 12 years ago were consolidated into the office of IT. They had a lot of business knowledge focused on those particular agencies that they supported. What I didn’t have was good interchangeability between agencies and staff so that I could could swing staff over to other agencies where they really needed help.

What’s an underappreciated IT practice or technology that helped you during the pandemic?

We have closer relationships and better business relationships with our agencies. It has shifted from the order-taker mentality of “you do what we need you to do because that’s what IT does” to “we have a problem, how can we solve this together?” From an underappreciated perspective, it’s to resist the complexity of the solutions that we provide and part of this shift on my team is not talking in technical jargon, but speaking in business value that we can deliver to the agencies.

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Lori Sorenson, CTO of Illinois

Lori Sorenson, CTO of Illinois

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

For us, the pandemic validated some of our strategic priorities we outlined several years ago: data analytics, enterprise architecture and information security. Data analytics, every person out there became mesmerized by the daily data — the testing, and now the vaccinations. “Bend the curve” became a common phrase everyone was talking about. It’s the power of data to tell a story and make informed decisions. That’s something that pre-pandemic was a priority, and this gave a real business case that everyone can understand. For security, shifting workforce to home. We always carry a big bag of legacy technology that we should be retiring. The pandemic showed how difficult it was to respond to those historic spikes in utilization of those systems.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the pandemic?

It was maintaining that good communication upward and outward. All of this was happening very fast. I think we managed it well, but the challenge was making sure we were getting accurate information on what was approved, what was not approved, who was making decisions, making sure we received that information and disseminated it out. You could struggle for days getting everyone on the same page.

What’s an underappreciated IT practice or technology that helped you during the pandemic?

It’s the architecture. Why does enterprise architecture matter? When you are having to pivot so fast, so quick, and everyone does it different. I just think about rolling out Citirix. We have 36 agencies that are in certain stages of transformation that were managing their own desktops. That creates delays in rolling out new capabilities.

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