Chief information officers (CIOs) faced multifaceted challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Compared to the corporate world, organizational culture in the public sector did not typically encourage virtual teaming, working from home and other remote models. Prior to the crisis, fewer than 20% of government employees worked remotely often or always, according to an EY survey of these workers.
But when the pandemic hit, that mindset had to change rapidly if the crucial business of government was to continue. We spoke with six state technology leaders to learn more about their transition to remote working and other surprises, successes and struggles during the pandemic. They are:
- JP McInnes, deputy CIO, Tennessee
- Julia Richman, deputy executive director, Colorado Office of Information Technology (OIT)
- Shawn Riley, CIO, North Dakota
- Dorman Bazzell, chief data officer (CDO), North Dakota
- Jeff Wann, CIO, Missouri
- Ervan Rodgers, CIO, Ohio
A fast, enthusiastic transition to remote working
According to every information and data officer we spoke with, state workforces adapted quickly and readily to working from home. Within weeks, tens of thousands were working from home effectively. For instance, Colorado and Missouri each moved around 17,000 staffers to remote work in a short period.
“Our remote staff grew from 10% to 100% in less than a month,” Rodgers said of Ohio. “Equally impressive, that transition included a shift from audio-only virtual meeting technology to a Teams environment.”
The move to remote working added new infrastructure burdens, but state IT departments rose to the occasion (see below). More importantly, state employees rose to meet their challenges by continuing to deliver essential services during a pandemic while working in a new, unfamiliar way.
“I was blown away by the unbelievable dedication of our state workers,” Riley said. “Their efforts helped save lives and maintain vital government functions.”
The right tools to serve the public
The success of remote working would not have been possible without the adaptability of state workers. But working from home also required a sufficient infrastructure to support it.
For many states, the process began with quickly getting laptops in the hands of employees. The scope of these efforts was unprecedented. Deployments that might have typically spread across a year suddenly needed to happen in weeks, and IT departments had to make it happen.
In Missouri, the state had deployed 2,000 laptops just before the pandemic, and they followed up with an additional 250 laptops per day as the crisis rolled on. Tennessee, meanwhile, obtained 2,500 laptops in little more than a month after work-from-home mandates took effect.
Of course, laptops are only one part of a seamless remote working infrastructure. Adequate bandwidth, enhanced security and robust virtual meeting tools are essential. In Tennessee, that meant quadrupling bandwidth, adding two-factor authentication and supporting a 500% increase in virtual meeting activity compared to the prior year.
In addition to remote working, managing state responses to COVID-19 put heavy burdens on CIOs and their staff. With a public desperate for information, states had to set up chatbots, prepare FAQs and roll out other tools to respond to millions of virus-related and economic inquiries.
In Ohio, many COVID-19-related efforts came together via the state’s existing InnovateOhio platform, an InnovateOhio initiative, and an executive order (EO) from 2019 that focuses on IT innovation.
“We got a jump on dealing with the pandemic thanks to the cloud-smart strategy,” said Rodgers. “And the EO included a data-sharing component that helped us pull together crucial data.”
Cloud technology was also useful in Tennessee, according to McInnes.
“We were able to quickly scale our security program as remote working ramped up, thanks to a cloud-licensing program,” he said.
In North Dakota, cloud technology offered similar benefits.
“When our legacy VPN struggled, we implemented a cloud-based solution within 48 hours,” Riley said.
The downside of muscle memory
North Dakota wasn’t the only state with VPN-related issues. Richman also report that Colorado’s VPN is “limping along” amid a complex, non-centralized technology environment.
That said, the biggest struggles for CIOs during the past year weren’t purely technological. The most significant challenge was managing the interplay between government services and public expectations.
“Even though the technology was successfully deployed, [North Dakota’s] government was not prepared to function in a telework environment,” Riley said. A lack of flexibility was sand in the gears for operations. Rigid state rules around financials, procurement, deployment timetables and more continued to apply even amid unprecedented circumstances.
“Old processes have a muscle memory that isn’t tuned for new ways of working and citizen expectations for digital services,” Bazzell said. North Dakota’s job service website, for instance, faltered under a 3,600% traffic increase.
In Missouri, call centers were initially overwhelmed with 140,000 or more inquiries a day about critical services such as unemployment insurance. In time, though, thanks to hard work and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, the user experience (UX) improved.
An ongoing success story
In one form or another, that message was echoed by all the state CIOs. Faced with enormous challenges, the successes far outweighed the struggles. Teamwork and resource-sharing were frequent. State workers readily adapted to working from home, and IT departments moved quickly to support them.
That EY survey supports these stories from the trenches. Of respondents, 78% said their organizations were moderately to extremely effective at managing processes, including IT, during the remote phase. And more than three out of four believed that the public sector will continue remote work even after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.
“Remote working creates so many options, including an expanded hiring pool,” Richman said. “Our non-working from home culture became one very quickly.”
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Chris Estes is the Finance, Operations & Technology Leader for the U.S. SLED at EY. He served as North Carolina’s Secretary and Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the Department of Information Technology. As a member of the governor’s cabinet, he provided oversight of information systems projects and managed IT services for state agencies, local governments and schools. He was an Executive Committee Director for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO). He also chaired NASCIO’s National Innovation Community. He is a recipient of the North Carolina Order of the Long Leaf Pine and several CIO of the Year awards.