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State and local IT stories that made 2021

Representing a mild improvement over the tribulations of 2020, the past year was for state and local governments marked by many of the same high-intensity concerns.

But most agencies showed that they had at least learned something from their initial responses to the health crisis. What began as a mad scramble in 2020, to get employees working remotely and to establish data-dashboards and functioning unemployment-insurance systems, gave way to a more sophisticated way of working and problem-solving. 

In most agencies, remote- and hybrid-work set-ups are now accepted as natural features of the environment, and the length of projects are shrinking to meet the compressed timelines that were normalized in 2020. IT leaders have repeatedly told StateScoop over the past year that they were surprised with their own response speeds and in many cases said they plan to continue using the practices that made those sprints possible.

The past year also set itself apart from 2020 in that not everything was about the pandemic. Though the health crisis was seldom far from anyone’s thoughts, many state and local agencies also found time to complete upgrades that had nothing to do with a virus.

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Vaccine apps were created and banned

After launching a vaccine passport in February, New York City in August became the first U.S. jurisdiction to require people entering public venues to be inoculated against COVID-19 and launched an app that allows users to display proof of vaccination.

Others soon followed. California launched a website in June allowing people to fetch their vaccination status, though Gov. Gavin Newsom was careful to note that the new tool was “not a passport,” despite having many of the same features. Hawaii and Washington were among those to launch their own apps in the fall.

Other states meanwhile took steps to ensure such apps wouldn’t be created. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in April banned all state agencies and local governments throughout the state from requiring people to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to receive service.

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States often struggled with IT during the pandemic

While some states quickly developed new tools to respond to the pandemic’s needs, many also hit snags along the way. Before its vaccination appointment website was launched in January, Florida turned to the ticketing website Eventbrite, a platform that was not designed for public health. Florida’s IT agency, meanwhile, has struggled to hold key employees.

Wisconsin sought help from 18F and others as it struggled with a legacy unemployment system that strained under heightened demand.

Washington D.C.’s vaccination appointment portal repeatedly crashed in February after leaders underestimated the load the public would put on their systems.

The Virginia Employment Commission wrestled with an IT upgrade and received more calls even than during the pandemic’s highest point in 2020.

But states also got new support for their IT projects, particularly in the form of relief funding in the spring and state and local cybersecurity and broadband funding through the recent infrastructure package.

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Georgia CIO Calvin Rhodes stepped down

After a decade of service, Georgia CIO Calvin Rhodes stepped down over the summer. He was lauded by his counterparts as “the consummate professional.”

There were other big moves, too. 

Washington CIO Jim Weaver in February announced he’d become North Carolina’s top IT official, his third state CIO role including his stretch in Pennsylvania.

Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers took a role at the shoe retailer Designer Brands, North Carolina Chief Risk Officer Maria Thompson landed at Amazon Web Services and Nevada CIO Alan Cunningham stepped down after his role was “altered dramatically.”

West Virginia CIO Joshua Spence, meanwhile, saw his role expand.

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Tyler Technologies continued its buying spree

Govtech giant Tyler Technologies continued to grow this year with several new acquisitions, including buying the digital government vendor NIC for $2.3 billion. Tyler also bought ReadySub, a software company that tracks teacher absences and schedules substitute instructors; VendEngine, a correctional facilities software firm; and Arx, a police-data software vendor.

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Missouri’s governor wrongfully accused a reporter of hacking a state website

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson in October accused a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter of hacking a state website, though state records show he did nothing wrong. The reporter only identified a flaw on the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website that was exposing the sensitive information of public-school employees in the state. He then notified the state of the flaw and allowed it 48 hours to correct the issue before publishing his story, all accepted industry practices.

Parson, who also commissioned and then did not release a study showing that mask mandates are effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19, later doubled down on his “hacking” claim, suggesting that the reporter should have simply notified the state of the flaw, which is in fact what happened.

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Cities started looking at flying taxis and crypto

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a plan this year to launch a flying taxi service within the next three years. The plan taps Archer Aviation, a California-based aircraft maker, to launch a fleet of electric-powered planes as part of an effort to reduce traffic congestion and emissions. Miami has similar plans to build vertical airports in its urban centers by 2024.

Miami is also leading efforts to embrace cryptocurrency. Mayor Francis Suarez and Chief Information Officer Mike Sarasti are converting portions of their paychecks to bitcoin. Miami has also welcomed the creation of a cryptocurrency dedicated to the city, called MiamiCoin. New York City has its own coin, too, and others are on the way.

Some of the year’s innovations haven’t panned out, though. Blockchain-based technologies have fared poorly in state governments, and Nevada, meanwhile, backed off a concept, called “innovation zones,” that would have allowed corporate interests to own and govern large plots of desert land.

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