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States, Local Areas See Common Tech Challenges for 2021

During a webinar yesterday, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and the Public Technology Institute shared data on the tech issues that will dominate the attention of states and local areas in 2021.

by / January 13, 2021

Technology trends among state and local governments dovetail in a number of significant ways in the wake of COVID-19, according to a forecast shared yesterday via webinar by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) and the Public Technology Institute (PTI)

The top issue of the forecast was, unsurprisingly, cybersecurity. NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson said the results of a late 2020 survey indicate that cybersecurity is the No. 1 concern among state CIOs for the eighth year in a row.  

With the increase of state employees working remotely, the pandemic “created a whole set of new security challenges.” Unfortunately, according to a survey of state chief information security officers, the biggest barriers to improved cybersecurity posture are insufficient budgets and staffing. 

“From the average cybersecurity spend in 2020, it’s moved a little bit,” Robinson observed. “But again, it tends to be in that one to three percent of total IT budget across the board … As you can see, comparing and contrasting to the federal government or private-sector counterparts, it is clearly inadequate given the level of threats and increasing sophistication of the threats and the threat actors, particularly nation states … It’s about the continuity of state government. It’s about a business risk to the state.”

Robinson added that a little more than half of the states have purchased cybersecurity insurance due to the threat of ransomware. 

Later in the forecast, PTI Executive Director Alan Shark confirmed that the focus on cybersecurity among cities and counties has intensified as well. To illustrate his point, he added that ransomware attacks of the past may have involved demands for $250 or $500, whereas now criminals often ask for six-figure sums. 

“And while more and more localities are turning to cyberinsurance, one has to wonder sometimes, is cyberinsurance actually becoming more of a target?” Shark said. “Because if cyberinsurance companies are more willing to pay out, does this signal possible targets for those who have it versus those who have not [purchased insurance]?”

Both Robinson and Shark cited digital services as another top trend among state and local governments. While the pandemic has made such services more of a necessary investment, the citizen experience with state systems needs to be improved, as sites are often fragmented and difficult to navigate, according to NASCIO’s research. 

“The user experience is not as seamless as you would expect to see from large organizations … This is one area that probably has not lived up to the great promise of more than a decade ago,” Robinson remarked. 

Although all governments need to realize that a user is “not just a customer,” Shark pointed out that local governments’ increased virtualization and digitization has been well received among many individuals. 

“People like it,” Shark stated. “They like the convenience. In fact, when we look at public meetings, they have grown exponentially.”

Looking at other major trends, Robinson and Shark also noted that state and local governments are increasingly tapping into off-premise and cloud solutions for their different technology needs. 

“States are not building new data centers, they’re not expanding their data centers,” Robinson said. “If anything else, they’re moving into outside data centers or they’re making their footprints smaller or they’re optimizing their environment.”

“So many local governments are under the gun to do so many things with less resources … It’s going to force more governments to figure out, ‘Does it make sense to do all these things ourselves, or should we turn to managed service providers who might be able to do a better job, possibly at a less cost?’” Shark said.

The forecast also addressed the massive shift to telework among governments. Robinson indicated that states in 2021 are likely going to consider expanded work-from-home options and increased usage of collaboration platforms. Shark said a number of people in local areas once balked at the idea of remote work options becoming permanent. Now, hybrid work models seem inevitable. 

“Will there be a full return to the workplace? In some cases, probably not,” Robinson predicted. “States are making decisions today as to what they’re going to do.”

Both Robinson and Shark cited broadband as a much bigger concern going into 2021. Broadband is now among the top five priorities of state CIOs, Robinson shared. The two speakers also opined that broadband affordability must be addressed soon from a policy perspective. 

“If we’re going to go virtual … we’ve got to do more,” Shark said. 

One interesting observation from Shark was that states and local areas now have greater opportunities to collaborate on shared challenges, particularly cybersecurity. However, much work needs to be done before these partnerships can reach their potential.

“Many of the local government CIOs say, ‘I don’t even know who my state CIO is. I don’t know how to reach them. I don’t know what they do,’” Shark said. “At the same time, the surveys show at the state end, state CIOs do offer services. So there’s a disconnect, and I think NASCIO and PTI have more work to do.”

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Jed Pressgrove Assistant News Editor

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.

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