For Alaska Chief Information Officer Bill Smith, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been a one-off event, but a “really good case study” for everything that state-government IT professionals should be doing differently.
Smith, who was hired last November to lead an IT centralization process, was only a few months into his new role when COVID-19 hijacked every government agency’s priorities. Having served as an operations director for the U.S. Army and an aviation support director for the Alaska Army National Guard, Smith said his perspective on the ongoing project to support a remote workforce has been informed by his military background.
“I look at it not as how long are we going to need to be able to support the current remote environment, but the exact same requirements that we have to support the remote environment are the requirements that we need to build into our environment for continuity of operations for any number of emergencies and disasters and earthquakes and whatever else,” Smith said.
With Alaska being one of the last states to be hit hard by COVID-19, Smith said officials benefited from watching how the lower 48 states responded. Like many other states, a lack of VPN bandwidth was one of the main challenges the state’s workforce faced. But Smith said with that problem resolved, his goal is to create a technology operation that’s built to withstand the current pandemic and any future emergencies.
“It was a stress test,” he said. “We came through with a little bit of hero work from our vendors and from our partners and our team, and so now the challenge is how do we normalize those lessons so that we don’t need the hero work in order to deal with emergency situations moving forward. I think it’s really achievable. I’m confident we’re going to get there in relatively short order, but it is going to take a little bit of thinking differently.”
The state implemented some temporary solutions for the VPN “chokepoint,” as Smith called it, and asked its vendors for help. Cisco was among those that responded, he said, and within “about a week” the state’s VPN throughput had been increased tenfold.
“Now we’re looking hard at our network and normalizing the current environment,” he said.
The quest for IT centralization
Before “everything happened,” Smith was preparing for the first phase of an IT centralization and shared services project that several of his predecessors attempted to advance with varying levels of success. The pandemic forced Alaska to scale down those efforts temporarily, but Smith said he has the political support he needs — a crucial ingredient that more than one former Alaska CIO said they lacked — and that he’s confident in its eventual success.
“I don’t think the challenges are necessarily so much that people don’t want to centralize,” Smith said. “I think the challenge, and it’s a legitimate concern of the departments, is that they have been entrusted with a mission to provide certain services to Alaskans and they take that very seriously. It’s not necessarily resistance, in my mind, to centralization. It’s a resistance to change without confidence that you’re going to get there.”
Former Alaska CIO Jim Bates, who spent nearly three years under two governors attempting to consolidate the state’s IT environment between 2013-2016, said he was never given the authority he needed to make the changes asked of him. He also expressed frustration with the state government’s political environment, which he nicknamed “the pressure cooker.” In 2018, Bill Vajda was the first to be given the title of Alaska’s “statewide” CIO, indicating he would have the authority to preside over a centralized IT organization, but he stepped down after 18 months, citing family matters.
But Smith may be better positioned to succeed than his predecessors. The effort to consolidate the state’s IT gels with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s commitment to cutting government spending, and the centralization project has also been endorsed by department commissioners.
“Most of them are not really being in the IT business if they can avoid it,” Smith said of his customer agencies. “They would love to be able to give it to a central agency. It’s just a matter of them being a part of that design and being part of that process. When we have that kind of relationship, I’ve seen a lot of positive things, a lot of willingness to move forward.”