Pandemic put states’ digital modernization efforts in the spotlight

At last year’s annual conference put on by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, before the novel coronavirus pandemic had captured their attention, state technology leaders said that “digital transformation” was one of their top priorities. Today, as unemployment systems and others are stressed by record numbers of concurrent users, the degree of success that each state has actually had in modernizing its systems has been illuminated.

Looking back several months to this event provides a unique view into the mindsets of states’ technology leaders before they knew how suddenly their efforts would be thrust into the spotlight. In a series of video interviews, state CIOs told StateScoop how their upgrades were progressing, the levels of support they were receiving from their state lawmakers and their emphasis on the residents who rely on those systems to receive critical services and support from government.

Montana CIO Tim Bottenfield, who’s now about one year away from migrating the state’s three final mainframe applications onto modern platforms, said he believed his state was in “a pretty good situation.” The state’s effort to modernize its enterprise content management system was being split between an on-premise solution and a cloud-based solution that will give agencies a choice of which they prefer to use, Bottenfield said.

But with a population of around just 1.1 million residents, Montana’s challenge in supporting its unemployed residents during the coronavirus pandemic pales in comparison to that faced by other states, where crashing websites and overloaded systems have become the norm in recent weeks.

The pandemic comes as Virginia, meanwhile, is in the middle of moving from a data center in Chester, Virginia, to a new facility in Richmond. In his interview, Virginia CIO Nelson Moe said the motivation for the move was largely financial.

“That’s big for us because it minimizes our spend,” Moe said.

Those efforts collided with a global health crisis that saw 410,000 Virginia residents apply for unemployment benefits in the space of a month. The Virginia Employment Commission on Monday reported it hopes to have a new system ready within three weeks, which officials are hopeful will allow the commonwealth to process claims faster.

Connecticut CIO Mark Raymond shared the progress his state has made, receiving financial support from the state legislature to create a new “digital services team.” Connecticut has also recently developed a new “problem-based” procurement system in which vendors are encouraged to develop creative solutions to the state’s problems, rather than the state prescribing the exact solution that companies must develop.

But like other states, Connecticut’s unemployment system has been slammed by the pandemic, receiving two years’ worth of unemployment insurance claims — more than 350,000 — in just a few weeks. Officials last week said their 40-year-old system, which runs on a primitive programming language called COBOL, has racked up a six-week backlog before residents can receive their checks. The state is now scrambling to develop an automated processing system.

North Dakota, which has seen a 4,200 percent increase in unemployment claims during the pandemic, has an IT shop run by a CIO with a strong focus on user experience. North Dakota CIO Shawn Riley said in his interview with StateScoop last year that he wanted to automate 20 percent of the state government’s work, automation dearly needed during the current flood of unemployment claims.

Like in other states, local reports show crashing websites and delays in service, testing a commitment that lies at the center of Riley’s ethos.

“We’re looking to change the experience that people have with government,” Riley said. “A really simple one, right, is: no one ever stands in line again.”