State and local CIOs outlined a series of challenges – from replacing 20-year-old systems to making government work seem “cool” to 20-somethings – at Government Technology’s Beyond the Beltway Conference Monday just outside Washington D.C.

The annual conference offered technology vendors a market briefing from CIOs at some of the nation’s most significant state and local jurisdictions. This year’s event threw a spotlight on pressing issues for technology leaders in government. Here are some of them:

Technology Funding

State revenues may be improving, but that doesn’t always translate into more money for technology projects.

Ohio CIO Stu Davis described technology spending in his state as “a little better than it has been,” and Texas CIO Karen Robinson said IT budgets in her state are holding up nicely. Others aren’t so lucky, however. Pennsylvania CIO Tony Encinias said rising pension and benefit costs are crowding out funding for his department. “The state budget is getting better, but that doesn’t help me,” he said. “I actually don’t have as much money as before.”

On the local side, Baltimore CIO Chris Tonjes said the recession isn’t over in his city.  “Our revenues haven’t recovered to the degree they have in other cities,” he said. “That makes it difficult for us to ask for more IT money.”

And Mississippi CIO Craig Orgeron noted that rebounding revenues may be dulling legislative appetite for technology transformation. “You can advocate for change when revenue is going down,” he said. “But the will to change is different when revenues are going up.”

Retirements and Recruiting

Work force issues loomed large for many of the 10 state and local government CIOs speaking at the event. Most of them said a third or more of their staff would be eligible to retire over the next few years.

One of the more drastic examples came from the city of Los Angeles, where 60 percent of IT employees will reach retirement age in the next five years, said Steve Reneker, general manager of the city's Information Technology and Services department. That’s one factor driving a strategic initiative to explore privatization of some or all of the city’s technology infrastructure. Reneker said he expects to bring privatization recommendations to the Los Angeles City Council within the next few months.

In some cases, Reneker added, jobs also are being filled by interns. “Our helpdesk will be totally staffed by student interns next year as employees retire.”

Kentucky CIO Jim Fowler said his state is considering civil service reforms designed to make it easier to hire and retain skilled workers. “Right now, we have difficulty attracting new employees,” he said. “The state isn’t considered a sexy place to work.”

Although changing civil service rules gives departments more flexibility on hiring standards and pay rates, they may not be a silver bullet for IT work force woes. Utah shifted IT employees to at-will status and adjusted pay rates years ago, but it’s still tough to compete against private technology companies for talented employees, said state CIO Mark VanOrden. “Lots of tech companies are coming to Utah,” he said, noting that those employers may pay twice as much as the state and offer a range of other perks as well.

In a move to hang onto talented staff, Utah created a new “master engineer” job title that lets highly qualified programmers and developers make more money without changing positions. “The only way for them to move up in the state was to become a manager,” VanOrden said. “This allows them to make more money and remain a technician.”

Broadband Projects

Both Los Angeles and Baltimore are launching initiatives to bring high-speed Internet access to their residents – particularly underserved neighborhoods.

In Baltimore, a committee is studying how to improve high-speed connectivity for more than 40 percent of city residents who don’t have broadband Internet access. “We’re going to find the best way to do that,” Tonjes said. “Do we need to put more fiber in the ground and partner with people to light it up? Should we build our own network? Should we try to incent Google to come in and build a network?”

Los Angeles is further along. The city will release a request for information in April asking private industry for ideas on how to create a combination fiber-to-the-home and wireless network. Reneker says the project -- known as the Los Angeles Community Broadband Network -- would provide gigabit speed Internet access to residents for price, while offering free slower-speed wireless connections. About 36 percent of city residents currently lack broadband connections, he said.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is tackling the digital divide on a statewide level. In January, Gov. Steve Beshear and Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers announced a $100 million plan to boost high-speed connectivity throughout the state. Fowler said the new network is vital to Kentucky’s economy. “We’re the 4th most rural state in the nation, and Kentucky ranks 46th in the nation in broadband availability,” he said. “Without this, we can’t move forward.”

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.