Pandemic elevated CIOs' roles, NASCIO survey finds

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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made state chief information officers as prominent as they’ve ever been in their governments, according to an annual survey being released Tuesday by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

The seven-month-long health crisis, CIOs said, has exposed cracks in government services and continuity of business operations that have required IT agencies’ constant presence and involvement to address the many challenges presented by COVID-19, from governmentwide shifts to remote work to propping up aged unemployment systems to the rapid development of contact tracing platforms.

One of the most profound effects of 2020, in the words of one CIO who participated in the survey, is that states’ executive leaders “found out that the CIO is not the computer guy. There is a whole new understanding that we enable the business of government.”

To NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson, the degree to which the group’s members have been relied upon this year is a strong reinforcement of CIOs’ years-long trajectory away from merely being back-office tech support to officials who keep the business of government running.

“It’s really the elevation, the recognition,” he told StateScoop. “What we’ve been talking about for years is getting beyond that infrastructure role to business leader.”

This year’s survey is subtitled “the Agile CIO,” a nod to the many ways CIOs and their agencies have had to adjust to meet new demands brought on by the pandemic. Across the 47 state and territorial IT leaders who responded, there was not one who was not involved in their government’s response to the crisis, and many — 38 percent — serve directly on their governors’ pandemic response teams.

“As fast as this pandemic situation hit us and the work at home orders, we were not only at the table but chairing the meetings,” one respondent is quoted as saying.

‘A better digital experience’

And though states have largely been left by the federal government to fend for themselves through the ongoing emergency, the NASCIO survey identified several areas where CIOs have taken similar steps. Three-quarters of states have launched new chatbots to  expand agencies’ ability to process digital transactions and to help residents wade through online government services — particularly applications for unemployment benefits and finding information about the latest COVID-19 guidelines. That figure, which was teased in a NASCIO report released in June, represents a sudden embrace of virtual agents.

“Where previously CIOs indicated they were seeking the right business case for use of chatbots, COVID-19 presented the ideal opportunity because of the tremendous surge in online transactions,” the report reads.

The next-most popular new technology was the rapid development of contact tracing smartphone apps. Slightly more than half of states have developed one, with many opting to use the Bluetooth-powered Exposure Notifications platform created jointly by Apple and Google.

But one of the most pressing lessons of the pandemic, the survey found, is that months of open-ended telework and stay-at-home orders have increased public demand for digital services.

“They all recognize the states need to produce a better digital experience for their citizens using their platforms,” Robinson said of CIOs. “But they have to make investments. You have millions of citizens who have not conducted business online with their state.”

Improving digital government remains a challenge, but the survey found a broad consensus among CIOs on the work to be done on that front. More than two-thirds of respondents agreed that states need to find ways to make the implementation of online services more affordable and to boost public participation.

‘Will never go back’

The pandemic has presented many challenges for CIOs, but there have been bright spots in a dark year. Remote work, the survey found, has been remarkably successful for government organizations. Although states ran into supply-chain issues in obtaining enough laptops and mobile devices early on — not unlike the runs on masks, cleaning supplies and baking ingredients the public encountered — most CIOs reported that their states relaxed procurement rules “without apparent degradation of service or integrity,” the survey found.

The report goes on to reiterate what many CIOs have said previously about maintaining solid relationships with vendors and acting as “brokers” of services to the rest of their governments.

“A thing that’s changed and will never go back is that movement toward a more remote workforce,” said Graeme Finley, a managing director at consulting firm Grant Thornton, which helped NASCIO conduct the survey. “It was forced on everyone, but done more seamlessly than anyone who thought it could happen.”

Though only a handful of states had liberal telework policies before the pandemic, “expanded remote work options” led the list of changes that CIOs expect most to stick around after the crisis subsides, followed closely by wider use of video-conferencing and collaboration software like Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Respondents also predict that digital government, broadband expansion and legacy modernization will see greater focus.

Agile grows

Although COVID-19 dominated NASCIO’s annual survey, Robinson told StateScoop the association did not want to focus solely on the pandemic. Many trend lines identified in previous NASCIO surveys are continuing apace, including moves toward shared IT services and consolidation of infrastructure.

Agile and incremental software development strategies also saw slight boosts, but the survey also found that those approaches are not often coordinated at a statewide level, with only 17% of CIOs saying agile development has centralized oversight in their states. But some said they hope the health emergency changes that. “I am hoping the lack of ability to congregate at work forces the more widespread use of Agile,” one CIO is quoted as saying.

Robinson said coordination may improve as more states move away from federated IT cultures and toward more consolidated structures where the statewide CIO can take a leading role.

“Three to four years ago, the benefits were not clear,” he said. “States cannot just afford these four- and five-year procurements. Again, the pandemic exposed this.”

Despite the many ways in which CIOs’ roles in government grew during the pandemic, many challenges await NASCIO members as they head into 2021. Many state CIOs are still relatively new in their positions, with 40 new CIOs since January 2019, Robinson said.

The survey also found some backsliding on cybersecurity, with fewer states reporting that they’ve adopted a strategic plan, though the report acknowledges some of that decline may be a reflection of the high CIO turnover rate. Still, the share of CIOs who only brief their governor or other elected officials on cybersecurity on an ad hoc basis — instead of at regular intervals — jumped from 35% in 2018 to 48% this year.

And states across the country are bracing for stiff budget cuts as the pandemic-fueled recession drags down tax revenues, which CIOs will need to navigate.

“How are states going to meet the demand that was exposed during the pandemic when they’re faced with probably two or three years of reduced revenue?” Robinson said.

The biggest takeaway from NASCIO’s annual survey, he said, is the agility that IT leaders have shown — a quality he hopes will last.

“What did they really do?” Robinson said. “They acted and they were constantly adjusting, and I’m hoping that’s maintained. Not that there has to be hair on fire all the time.”

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COVID-19, digital government, Doug Robinson, NASCIO 20, NASCIO Annual Survey, National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), remote work
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