Nevada CIO says state's IT is 8 years behind others'

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Nevada’s IT capabilities are six to eight years behind those of other states, its top technology official said in an interview with StateScoop.

Since joining the state government last August, Nevada Chief Information Officer Alan Cunningham told StateScoop said he’s watched an IT environment that was already challenged by a funding structure be further stressed by pandemic-induced budget shortfalls. He also said it suffers from a culture that doesn’t encourage cross-department collaboration, financial waste through redundant technology purchases and a foggy view of its cybersecurity risks.

“We’re at the place where we’re done,” he told StateScoop. “We can’t give you any more with the same. If you give us less, you’re going to get less back. It’s a reality.”

‘Uh, we don’t know’

Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham

The recent compromise of SolarWinds’ network monitoring software, which was used by numerous government organizations, was a “prime example” of how Nevada’s federated environment puts the state at risk, Cunningham said. Nevada doesn’t keep a centralized purchasing database, he said, so when he called the state’s purchasing department last December and asked which agencies were using the compromised software, he got an answer he didn’t like.

“‘Uh, we don’t know,’” Cunningham recalled being told. “So we had to rely on the agencies coming to us and telling us whether they were running it or not. And we had one particular agency that was a good 48 hours behind the other agencies coming to the table to let us know they were actually using it.”

And the fact that Cunningham’s Enterprise IT Services division does not run all of Nevada’s IT policy results in the state making many redundant purchases, he said.

While sitting last week on a committee for the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles project to purchase new document management software, Cunningham said he noticed that three of the four vendors pitching their technologies were already doing similar business with other state agencies.

“We’re federated, which is one of my biggest banes of my existence,” he said. “The duplication and wastage of time, energy — which we all know equals money — is insane. I don’t have a seat in the Cabinet because the CIO role in Nevada is only a couple years old so I can’t get to the governor to say look, if you’re looking to save money, check out what Arizona did, check out what Utah did, check out what 38 out of the 50 states have already done with their IT.”

‘So much tribalism’

Centralizing IT services is a decades-old trend for which state chief information officers consistently advocate. But in Nevada, Cunningham said, project leaders don’t even communicate across department lines about their relationships with their vendors, which has led some functions, like electronic signatures, to come from several companies, instead of one.

Numerous other technology decisions aren’t made with good governance in mind, he said, which has led to many of Nevada’s government websites being hosted outside of state servers.

“They just go out and buy some hosting thing and tell us to redirect it and we can’t do anything about it because we’re federated,” Cunningham said. “We just haven’t got there and there’s so much tribalism and siloed information and people building their own little castles.”

And in an era when state governments are striving to improve digital services, Nevada is an outlier in not offering any mobile apps to its residents for conducting business with the state, Cunningham said. In some cases, the state’s IT even appears to be regressing: an SMS-based messaging service used by the DMV to inform people when it was their turn, he said, was decommissioned because too many people weren’t showing up for their appointments.

Accidental progress

Nevada’s IT is entirely funded through a charge-back model in which Cunningham’s division sells services to other agencies, which he said has made adopting new technologies challenging. An ongoing project to adopt Microsoft chatbots, which he said has shown early success in reducing call-center volume at one agency, can’t be tested further because there’s no funding to test such things.

The state’s recent adoption of Microsoft’s cloud-based productivity tools, he added, was only made possible by a mistake: One department purchased too many licenses, allowing him to shift them to another department and convince the state to purchase the technology more widely.

Cunningham said he pushed for a law earlier this year that would have changed the state’s IT funding model, but they didn’t get to it, so the CIO’s next opportunity will be when lawmakers reconvene in 2023.

“They just don’t understand the enterprise width of technology and what it is within the state,” Cunningham said. “They all just work for their agency and that’s all they’re interested in. They don’t look at it from a state standpoint. There’s very few people who say ‘I work for the state.’ And that concerns me a lot.”

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Alan Cunningham, Chief Information Officer (CIO), IT centralization, IT Modernization, Nevada
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