Digital States Survey 2018: Raising the Bar

The results of this year's survey show that top states prioritize collaboration, good governance and strong citizen engagement in their use of technology to serve the public.

by , / October 2, 2018
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Click through for our detailed write-ups on each state.


State technology leaders are looking to knock down some walls.

In the 2018 Digital States Survey from the Center for Digital Government,* states have implemented IT strategies to enable inter-agency cooperation. They’ve bolstered data-sharing across government, built cross-functional platforms and taken a range of steps to dramatically enhance the citizen experience.

“As a citizen, if you need three services from government, you don’t always know what agencies those services are supposed to come from,” said Teri Takai, executive director of the Center for Digital Government. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could put your information in once and you could use that for your income taxes, for your driver’s license, for the camping website? We see a move toward using technology to ease that interaction. That is proving a primary driver.”

This happens in part by taking data out of siloes. It also happens by migrating off of legacy systems and onto more readily sharable cloud services.

There have been challenges along the way, as agencies strike out on their own to embrace off-the-shelf cloud solutions, sometimes going outside the usual IT pipeline to acquire these services. “The CIOs don’t want to be saying no, because many of these tools are very useful, but they also know that having too much software can sometimes make a problem worse,” Takai said. “They’re clearly thinking about how they can bring security to this very different environment.” 

In the big picture, this year’s A-grade states — Utah, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Georgia — show a readiness to embrace the ever-expanding role of the government technology leader. No longer content to merely provide tech support, IT chiefs increasingly are collaborating with agencies over fundamental questions that impact government operations and citizen services. 

“The CIOs are working very, very hard to engage directly with the business side, with the agencies and the folks who are in both policy roles and delivery roles,” Takai said. “They are putting in place governance models that have them working more closely with the cabinets: governance around cybersecurity, governance around project management. They continue to move away from being just the technical guys and into this much broader role.”

Utah

For Utah CTO Dave Fletcher, a platform approach offers the surest way to bridge the gap between disparate systems, diverse agencies and dissimilar user groups. 

“If we have 100 different solutions for something, they all become siloed. We don’t have the ability to manage such a complex environment,” he said. “A platform approach reduces our cost and it enables us to focus more.” 

Those platforms include a single sign-on system that stretches across all state agencies, and a statewide payment gateway that integrates with a vast array of individual agency solutions. Software-as-a-service likewise serves as a key facilitator, enabling easy interoperability among multiple services.

Fletcher said the platform approach has helped the state to rapidly adopt emerging technologies, including Alexa-type virtual assistants, which Utah uses to deliver information on fishing hot spots, as well as to help citizens prep for driver’s license tests and notary exams. “Because we already have APIs developed that connect to back-end data, we can roll out solutions on top of that and take on these new platforms. It simplifies that whole process,” he said. 

The platform approach likewise enables citizens to interact more effectively with government. Take for instance the single sign-on system, which encompasses some 900 digital services. “When we roll out solutions, people automatically have access. You don’t have to recreate the whole identity and access structure for every new solution that we bring online,” Fletcher said.

Individual agencies benefit too. Take for instance the statewide payment gateway, a shared architecture with common APIs that works in tandem with a shared financial system. Freed from the burden of creating and maintaining their own accounting infrastructures, “agencies can focus more of their efforts on the individual business missions,” Fletcher said.

State IT leaders also have invested in an emerging “ecosystem platform” approach, in which whole business functions can access a shared and common infrastructure. “In health care, for instance, we can integrate with hospitals and clinics and doctors’ offices using common APIs and services, with a shared data and analytics platform to analyze those transactions,” he said.

Looking ahead, Fletcher said the state will apply this same approach in the emerging Internet of Things arena. “We have a lot of IoT activity, we have sensor networks to monitor air and water quality, we have a connected vehicles initiative,” he said. An IoT platform could help to bring all these efforts to fruition efficiently and cost-effectively.

Michigan

David DeVries has been busy building connections on the back end.

As director of the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget and state CIO, he helped implement a new Enterprise Resource Planning system that spans multiple state agencies. “We replaced the entire back office of how you pay people — both employees and vendors — with a single ERP system that is hosted in the cloud,” he said.

Another major migration unified all state systems — some 50,000 user endpoints — on Windows 10. “We took an effort that was slated to run through 2021 and we are now completing that this year,” he said. “We accelerated it by making it a business proposition: This is how you can standardize the workforce so they all have the same screen, and I as the CIO have a common security platform that I can manage across the board.”

The state has undertaken a parallel effort on the citizen-facing side, putting in place a common look and feel across all its public apps. “We are going to have a single sign on for the system, so if I give you my credentials once, when I sign back on to get my hunting license or my fishing license I can use that same credential. We’re not totally there yet but we have made a lot of strides,” he said.

In order to implement these large-scale efforts to harmonize systems, DeVries has had to win stakeholder buy-in from across government. He’s done this by attacking IT problems from the perspective of risk management, an analytic approach that he said has helped bring clarity to the process.

“Risk management is a fundamental way for leaders to talk about sensitive topics without it becoming personal. You talk about the overall risk to the organization. If you can articulate that, you can discuss tradeoffs in a rational way,” he said. “If you can do that, then they can begin to move toward an enterprise capability, a corporate capability."

Missouri

Acting Missouri CIO Richard Kliethermes sees IT modernization unfolding across a range of Missouri agencies.

Take for instance the Medicaid eligibility process, previously characterized by “a tremendous amount of paperwork,” Kliethermes said. A new online portal dramatically streamlines that process both for citizens applying for benefits, and for the departments that handle those requests.

The Department of Economic Development has seen similar upgrades in its job bank resources. Here, the IT department was able to integrate information from multiple government sources in order to forge a more seamless process. “We created more tightly coupled interactions with businesses seeking employees, while also making it easier to connect citizens with businesses that want and need an increased talent pool,” he said.

Another effort helped the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to overhaul its unemployment insurance systems. “We took a 40-year-old, COBOL-based system and put them on a Web-based platform, allowing citizens enhanced ability to apply for unemployment benefits,” Kliethermes said.

The key ingredient driving these sweeping infrastructure improvements: governance.

In early 2018 a state IT governance council convened for the first time, bringing together not just technology leaders, but also business leaders from across all the executive departments. That committee’s work has been key in supporting the IT department’s modernization efforts.

“Governance and prioritization is key to operations,” Kliethermes said. “Having this committee highlights the importance of IT ownership being not just for the IT department, but also for the agencies themselves. Who are the decision-makers on the business side? Are we prepared to staff these things correctly? If this is going to impact how people do their work, will there be an organizational change component in place? All of this has to be a joint effort.”

At the same time, IT leadership has helped to keep all the partners oriented toward the common goal of enhanced citizen service.

“From a strategic perspective, in working with our partner agencies, our focus is always directly related to the citizens,” Kliethermes said. “It’s about how internal operations impact the end result of services that constituents receive, how technology initiatives improve their interaction with the state of Missouri.” 

Ohio

In Ohio, one big change made a whole lot of other things possible.

When the state consolidated over 30 data centers into the cloud, it did more than just save some money and improve efficiencies. It opened minds.

“That changed agency culture,” said Interim CIO and Interim Director of the Department of Administrative Services Spencer Wood. “Before, everyone had to physically hug their equipment. People did not feel comfortable giving anyone else access to their data. This data center consolidation helped people to work through that feeling. They saw a secure system managed by professionals.”

With the new mindset in place, IT leadership moved to enhance the digital experience with a consistent look and feel, first for state employees and then for citizens.

“As an employee it was very difficult to find benefits information, for example. You had to go everywhere for that,” he said. With business owners more open to sharing their data and processes, “we wanted to pull all that information together.”

With an employee portal in place, the IT team now is working to roll out improved digital services to citizens. They have upgraded the state platform Ohio.gov to make it more responsive, and have enhanced functionality on the state’s business gateway.

At the same time, Wood and his team have turned their attention to data analytics. Here again, the new willingness to share has ushered in improved functionality and enhanced citizen service.

“We stood up a data lake where we can pull together data sets, some of which have never been accessible across platforms,” he said. “We are using that to help solve some public policy challenges, starting with infant mortality, where the data is giving us some insights into policy changes we can make that would improve outcomes.”

That’s a direct result of knocking down the walls and pulling data out of its previously siloed state. “It can be as simple as seeing death certificates alongside patient care information, or taking the data on people who are on food stamps and other assistance and putting that against health-care data or against mobility and transportation options,” he said.

Such novel intersections open up whole new avenues of exploration on the policy side.

Georgia

In Georgia, IT officials lean heavily on the private sector: An internal service management organization oversees the efforts of between 800 and 1,000 external technology professionals. Last year, the state substantially renegotiated those contracts.

“The first time around, we wanted to modernize and consolidate processes, to standardize the infrastructure and the services,” said CIO Calvin Rhodes. “Now that all those processes are mature and in place, that allowed us to take these very large contracts and break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Now it’s a more plug-and-play model, so that as technology changes, we can turn services on or off as we need them.”

That model came into play in a big way when the governor pledged to build a $100 million cybercenter in support of the U.S. Army Cyber Command’s move to Georgia.

Rhodes’ office became quarterback for that effort. “We worked with construction companies, architects, general contractors,” he said. “We met with the state university system and the technical college, the National Guard and the state police force to look at their facilities needs and also to develop the needed skills.”

The need for a cyber talent pool to support the new facility in turn brought Rhodes back to the private sector. “We are trying to create an ecosystem that benefits all parties,” he said. “We have students who need internships, and the private sector has an interest in reaching that talent, connecting with individuals who can work for them after they graduate.”

Development of the cybercenter, whose first building opened in July, was a complex undertaking with lots of moving parts. The secret to success, Rhodes said, was the willingness to sometimes get it wrong.

“It’s about understanding that we will never be ‘100 percent’ on the thousands of decisions that we needed to make,” he said. “Our goal was to be 80 percent correct and then to adjust as we went along. You have to be able to take some risks.” 

Click through for our detailed write-ups on each state.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.

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Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.