Theresa Szczurek, who was hired earlier this month as Colorado’s new chief information officer, sees her role as being a “consultant” to the rest of the state government. It’s a fitting description, considering her long business career included several stints running an independent management consulting practice.
Amid a crop of newly appointed state CIOs, Szczurek is unique for serving a governor with a deep technological background of his own. Jared Polis, who founded at least two internet companies with six-figure figure exits, including electronic greeting card website Bluemountain.com and ProFlowers, was elected to lead Colorado last November after a decade in Congress.
“We are really consultants, being driven by our customers: the 17 agencies in the executive branch,” Szczurek said in an interview with StateScoop last week. “We will be working with them to deliver on Gov. Polis’ vision.”
Based on how Polis ran for governor, that vision may eventually include aggressive explorations of emerging platforms such as blockchain ledger technology for state record-keeping, energy grid management, and voter registration. In the near term, though, Szczurek said there is no shortage of big projects for the Colorado Office of Information Technology, including several that are on schedule to be completed this year.
Benefits to the cloud
Szczurek said the state is in the final stage of moving the management system for its Medicaid, nutrition assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other social-welfare programs to a new cloud-based platform. When finished, the new Colorado Benefits and Management System — which was marred by improper payments and technical failures for more than 15 years — will be the first statewide benefits system be powered entirely by cloud computing, Szczurek said.
CBMS, as the system is known, is used to process all applications for the state’s cash and medical assistance programs. And over the past month, there’s been an added strain on it as many of Colorado’s federal employees have gone without paychecks during the ongoing partial government shutdown.
“It’s really important right now,” Szczurek said. “We’re finding more federal government workers who are pressed for cash flow coming in for food stamps, to get cash and medical help.”
More than 2,400 of the 53,200 federal employees residing in Colorado have filed for unemployment benefits, accounting for 20 percent of new claims since the shutdown began Dec. 22, according to the state Department of Labor. Polis also announced last Friday the state would begin offering unemployment compensation to affected federal workers who are required to work without pay, such as Transportation Security Administration employees, defying a Trump administration direction that they are not eligible for assistance.
While CBMS is the biggest lift, Szczurek said the state government is embracing a broader “cloud-first” strategy for its IT systems, which span a total of 1,200 applications.
“You obviously can’t move 1,200 applications immediately, and they”ll be assessed as to their prioritization,” she said.
Still, as Colorado continues its modernization efforts, there will be opportunities to implement new technologies. Particularly, Szczurek said she’s looking forward to the introduction of artificial-intelligence applications like chatbots to help state workers and citizens using government services online. That would follow her last private-sector job as the founder of an enterprise software firm that developed live-assistance platforms.
“Implementing chat in our [help] centers is important, but beyond that, how can we automate this chat so we can have some of the simplest questions be answered automatically rather than taking precious live people’s time?” she said. “That could be the first tier of support, and then you escalate as necessary. That’s one of the ways which can improve customer service and save time and money.”
Szczurek also said she wants to deliver what she calls “customer delight,” to end users in state offices as well as Colorado residents seeking government services.
“We have a mobile-first philosophy and we are, when appropriate, working to make mobile or web apps that can be easily accessible to our citizens that allows them, on the go, to get access to the information they need,” she said.
One of those apps, myColorado, was launched on Jan. 7, one day before Polis took office. The app, created under former CIO Suma Nallapati — now an executive at satellite television provider Dish Network — debuted with the capability to file driver’s license and vehicle registration renewals, but it will be up to Szczurek to add more functions as the app matures.
Another system Szczurek’s been looking at in her first weeks on the job is the Program Eligibility and Application Kit, or PEAK, a website and mobile app that helps Colorado residents create applications for the benefit programs administered through CBMS. Szczurek programs like PEAK and CBMS help explain to the state’s population just what the Office of Information Technology does.
“That’s where things are moving,” she said. “One of the things that impressed me so much in coming on board here is that sometimes on the outside, people think government is just legacy management systems.”
Making Colorado a cybersecurity leader
Szczurek’s appointment as CIO isn’t her first time overseeing the Colorado state government’s technology policy, though she said it’s entirely different from when she sat on the now-defunct Information Management Commission in the 1990s under then-Gov. Roy Romer. Since then, the commission, and other agencies, were folded into the consolidated Office of Information Technology, which turns 10 years old this year.
“It’s been a huge shift,” she said. “We continue to support the agencies in the executive branch, but find we can be so much more efficient and that we can tackle huge problems like cybersecurity and build up a base of knowledge. We can have expertise in emerging tech that allows us to bring out these enterprise solutions in a way to reduce redundancy.”
Cybersecurity is also where Szczurek said she’d like make Colorado an example for other states, especially following the state Department of Transportation’s encounter last year with the SamSam ransomware virus, which knocked out 2,000 agency computers and disrupted back-office operations. OIT at the time said it was able to restore 80 percent of affected systems within a month at a cost of $1 million to $2 million, a much lower price paid than by other SamSam victims, such as the city of Atlanta. Szczurek credited the state’s relatively less painful experience to a 2017 project called Backup Colorado, which spreads critical data across multiple servers so an entire system can’t be taken down at once.
There’s plenty more work to be done on the security front, Szczurek said.
“It keeps getting more vicious in terms of the attacks,” she said. “One of the biggest risks is employee negligence and bad habits. Stupid stuff like clicking on the wrong links or leaving computers unlocked.”
Szczurek said OIT’s information security office offers quarterly training to sate employees, but she’s also planning to offer recommendations for good security habits to the general population. “I think this will tie into economic development, because then more firms will want to come to Colorado and more IT specialists will want to work in Colorado and for the state,” she said.
Ultimately, Szczurek brings her mission as CIO back to improving the IT experience for her customers, a role she said she’s done at various levels since she got her start as a programmer for Bell Laboratories in the 1980s.
“When I look back at my career path, the thread through it all has been improving information technology,” she said. “First for AT&T, bringing these systems into the world market, then as an entrepreneur founding and running technology companies. In between I’ve been a certified management consultant working with firms, helping them improve performance.”
As the lead IT official for a state with 31,000 government employees and 5.6 million residents, Szczurek sounded optimistic that arc will continue.
“We have a plan in place to be more consultative in our approach in bringing out more advanced technology,” she said. “My consulting background is very useful in building this customer culture. We’ll be driven by their needs and translate that into an IT solution.”