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How Crisis Can Drive Innovation for Colorado CIO

For Colorado, the COVID-19 pandemic could be a turning point. In adapting to the crisis, the state’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) has found itself in a position where it can accelerate its push for IT transformation because the crisis has already put transformation at the top of the agenda.

It’s a new environment in state government, but not so much for Theresa Szczurek, Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Executive Director of OIT. When she worked in the private sector, she ran several entrepreneurial high-tech ventures, including one that was completely virtual. GovLoop spoke with Szczurek about how OIT responded to the crisis and how it’s shaping its future.

Operations and Innovations

Szczurek said that the IT team’s work has never been more important than it is now. OIT has proven instrumental in helping the state government respond to rapidly evolving requirements.

I break our work into two big buckets. One is keeping systems operational, especially in the time of COVID. The other has to do with innovation — the work that we can do to help the state and our Coloradans handle this better. Overall, I like to think of myself in a “motivation and direction” role with regards to all of that. The state has been looking to the Governor’s Office of Information Technology as the enterprise provider of technology support and services to really help move employees into a telework situation, to keep all of our state applications operational and be able to address any challenges going forward.

During the pandemic, 90% of OIT employees and 75% of all state employees were working from home. In some ways, the task of creating this remote work environment was clear-cut: buy more equipment, get people situated and increase network capacity. But innovation was often a necessity, such as to support the help desk, for example.

We found that our service desk started getting a huge increase in load. So, in the innovation area, one of the things we did was start more quickly diffusing a tool for password self-service resets, since that was the largest need that people were calling in to the service desk. Now, we have all but a couple of agencies equipped, which has greatly decreased our service desk demand. We got more people in the service desk so that we can deal with that demand as much as possible. But another thing we’ve done is hold “office hours” on a regular daily basis, so that people could call in at a certain time.

The state also has leveraged virtual solutions to meet emerging needs. This approach is giving OIT an opportunity to consider the role that such solutions might play in the long term.

We are always looking to improve efficiency, transparency and customer satisfaction. And, you know, one of the things in this time of crisis is you have to act fast.… [For example], when we saw that the Public Health and Environment [Department] and other agencies were having a huge increase in the number of calls coming in, we stood up some virtual call centers based on a pay-as-you-go model, and this really allowed us to meet that need quickly. And we’ve had to move toward electronic document signature and other new products. Now, as we are looking back, we’re learning lessons and we’re seeing what we want to keep and what we don’t want to keep.

Social Change Theory

OIT had launched an IT transformation initiative before COVID-19. Szczurek believes that after the crisis, that initiative could gain more traction.

I like to use this model by Kurt Lewin called social change theory. Lewin talks about being frozen in a certain situation with a set of forces both positive and negative — forces that hold people or a situation in place. If you want change, you need to unfreeze the situation — like melting ice cubes — so that you can align with the positive forces that encourage change and get rid of some of those negative forces that resist it. The COVID-19 situation is an opportunity because we are unfrozen. You don’t want to waste a good crisis, so to speak. We can see where we were at before, get aligned with the governor’s vision of IT transformation, and then work through processes and products around talent, governance, technology, security and service — how can we better serve the state? — and then refreeze it.

Szczurek recognizes that such tumultuous times can be challenging for employees. She believes that the key is to help employees tap into what she calls “passionate purpose.”

I did a major research study on this prior to coming to the CIO position, and I asked people what brings meaning to your life, what helps you continue working towards a goal. And people said two things: It was the opportunity to contribute and the opportunity to make connections. So, I asked, “How do you do that?” And it’s by lighting a fire. This is where people need to connect with their passion and align that passion with a meaningful purpose — I call it a passionate purpose — then pursue that purpose with a plan, assess progress…and then reset for the next wave. This is a four-stage model that I like to depict in a circle. I call it the Sacred Circle of Life, because we do this in our personal life and our professional life.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent report, “CIO Perspectives: A New Vision for the Government Workplace.” Download the full report here.

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