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Digital States Survey 2020: Cloud Is More Critical Than Ever

2020 put all states to the test as they moved to deliver more services online than ever before. Leading states had laid the groundwork with strong as-a-service platforms and pivoted quickly to take on new challenges.

by , / October 28, 2020
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A map of the states that received an A grade in the 2020 Digital States survey

The top performers in this year’s biennial Digital States Survey, presented by the Center for Digital Government (CDG),* stood out in two respects. 

First, they showed a commitment to technology-driven government prior to the pandemic. Then, when COVID-19 introduced a range of new and urgent needs, they demonstrated the ability to shift on the fly. Despite the challenges, 10 states were actually able to raise their grades, “which means they are continuing to make progress, even in the current environment,” said CDG Executive Director Teri Takai.

She also noted that:

  • States showed a continued commitment to using data in support of government efforts. “We are seeing states continue to create a chief data officer role, or to have another individual who works to organize their data. More states are really getting into using the data, trying to understand how to put that data to work,” Takai said.
  • There’s an increased focus on citizen-centric service. “We are seeing lots of new applications, greater uses of artificial intelligence, all with an eye toward greater citizen service,” she explained.
  • States continue the push to the cloud. “There is a steady move in that direction, with a dramatic change in attitude as a result of the pandemic,” she said. “Folks are moving much more quickly. They recognize the value of the cloud and a lot of the early concerns have been put aside because they just needed the capacity.” 

Overall, this year’s top-performing states demonstrated resilience across the IT organization, and an ability to pivot swiftly in the face of changing circumstances. 

“I am incredibly impressed with the CIOs and with their staffs. They did what it took to get their states to remote work, to stand up citizen services,” Takai said. “They cut down some of the bureaucratic barriers that had plagued government. They tried things that they had not tried before, and they were successful in making those moves.” 

As a result, the past two years have seen state IT organization grow in status and influence as drivers of better government. “They have had more interactions with the governors and with key members in the executive branch than they ever had before,” Takai said. “The value of technology has now become quite obvious all across government. People see that technology is important, and they’ve seen the technology organization stand up when it counted.”

Utah

Before COVID-19 took center stage, Utah CTO Dave Fletcher was aggressively pursuing a path to cloud. 

“Some of our most important work includes our ongoing migration to cloud computing,” he said. In March 2019, the Legislature announced a plan to tear down the Utah State Office building and adjoining state data center. As a result, “we have had a goal to move 40 percent of our portfolio to the cloud.” 

To make that shift, Fletcher’s office has coordinated closely with cloud providers including Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google to ensure a smooth transition that would also support rigorous cybersecurity. “Our close cooperation with the cloud providers has been an important element,” he said. “We had a cloud strategy since 2009, so it is not new to us. We are just picking up the pace a bit.” 

The IT team has also worked hand in glove with state agencies to orchestrate the move. “Some things are easier to move to the cloud, and with some things we need to do rewrites,” Fletcher said. “We wanted to identify the parts of the portfolio that we could move most effectively.” 

When COVID-19 came on the scene, the IT team continued pushing toward the cloud, but with a somewhat altered focus. 

“We already had a significant remote workplace initiative that was underway in 2018 and 2019, we had done a lot of testing and preparation work,” he said. “So really it was a matter of ensuring that we had secure connections and the right support model to be able to support remote workers, making sure we could do most of our support remotely rather than hands on.” 

IT support needed the ability to remotely address a range of potential problems that might arise among a suddenly virtual workforce. “If people have problems with their machines, we want to be able to replace them quickly or be able to help them to continue working,” Fletcher said. “We also expanded our VPN capacity to ensure that those who work in regulated agencies, where they are managing personal information and regulated information, to ensure that data wasn’t being stored on personal machines.” 

The statewide IT team of about 730 people has leveraged communications to keep its efforts on track through the pandemic. “We have a pretty trust-digital workplace,” he said. “If anything, it has become more collaborative. I have digital meetings scheduled all day. We have a collaborative management environment where our developers can work together on system projects. We have chats going on all the time.” 

Looking ahead, the IT team is seeking to leverage an AI center of excellence that was stood up in 2019. “We have spent a lot of time sharing uses cases and we’ve had a lot of different projects related to AI, with 12 separate initiatives, everything from a statewide chatbot framework to a big project in connected autonomous vehicles,” he said.

Georgia

Georgia’s pre-pandemic effort to bolster cybersecurity paid off in a big way in support of the rapid and unexpected rise of remote working. “We’ve had tremendous support for the governor’s office for some enterprise-wide initiatives,” said CIO Calvin Rhodes. 

“We’ve done enterprise-wide IT security training for 140,000 people in response to an executive order. Just based on past experience we had seen the importance of this — securing the person as well as the perimeter,” he said. “This started before remote work, but it set a good precedent for us as we responded to COVID-19.” 

Those efforts come in tandem with the 2018 opening of the Georgia Cyber Center, another indication of the state’s commitment to digital security. 

“It’s an over $100 million investment by the state, in partnership with the private sector,” he said. After its initial launch the center expanded and now covers some 330,000 square feet. “It’s the first time we’ve had a Georgia cybercrime unit, it includes a cyber-range for hands-on training of our teams, and it’s also available for cities and counties around the state.” 

At the same time, Rhodes’ team has been working to consolidate and coordinate state agencies’ virtual presence. Digital Services Georgia, a division of the Georgia Technology Authority, operates a state portal that now hosts 79 agency websites. 

An open source platform on the Amazon cloud, the portal ensures everyone gets uniform services including accessibility as well as responsive design in support of mobile users. Implemented in 2012, it has grown from 40 to 70 agencies, and has proven especially helpful in supporting pandemic-related needs. 

A state COVID-19 dashboard on the platform has drawn a nonstop flood of visitors, with cloud scalability enabling the portal to support millions of hits a day, especially from citizens seeking information on health and labor issues. 

Rhodes’ team has also recently implemented a new analytics tool to enable all agencies to track their sites. “That’s another big benefit of being in the cloud,” he said. “We can see if we are driving traffic and the agencies can see things like bounce rates and time on site, which tells the agencies whether people are finding what they are looking for. Then they can design their site architectures to be more responsive.” 

The IT team also rose to the challenge of standing up a mobile workforce this spring. “We had people who had never worked remote, so there was a hardware component, buying new laptops. We have an automatic refresh cycle and we were able to divert assets from that to get those into the people who needed to work from home,” he said. “We’ve also modified the VPN to support a level of capacity that we had never initially envisioned.” 

Also on the COVID-19 front, the IT team has ramped up call center capacity. “We’ve contracted for 11,000 [calls] a month and we’ve been seeing 25,000 to 30,000 calls, so we have public-private agreements with our service providers where they can resolve the issue, and if they can’t fix it they can roll a truck to fix the problem. That has proven really helpful in closing that gap,” he said. 

Arizona

Arizona’s aggressive investments in the cloud helped to carry the day when COVID-19 struck.

“The single largest transformational initiative for the past few years has been in relation to our cloud-first initiative and cloud migration,” said CIO J.R. Sloan. 

“We identified 90 ‘data centers,’ everything from formal climate-controlled rooms to people who had deployed servers in closets or under their desks,” he said. “We then looked to consolidate that footprint into one of two major locations. The state had decided to vacate the primary data center, which we did at the end of 2018, and we established a new presence in a Tier 1 facility in Phoenix.” 

Primary mainframe operations and many workloads were moved to the cloud. For those systems that weren’t ready to make the leap, Sloan’s team set up a shared hosted data center where agencies could centralize their technology. “As a result, we closed 75 on-premise data center facilities over the past year, which exceeded what we thought we could get done,” he said. 

The state has simultaneously been leveraging that cloud capacity to roll out G Suite for common email, calendar and collaboration among 90 different agencies with over 40,000 mailboxes, effectively eliminating some 30 different, disconnected email systems. 

When COVID-19 arrived, “this put all the tools in front of us to speed the transition to telework,” Sloan said. “Everyone had cloud-based tools for collaboration and virtual meetings. Moving quickly on cloud technologies really positioned us well for that transition.” 

In moving to a single cloud-based collaboration platform, he said, the state has saved over $750,000 by removing duplicative collaborative tools. 

The cloud investment also helped support citizen services in the midst of the pandemic. 

“The cloud technology helped those agencies that were hit hard by the pandemic, for example with unemployment insurance and the call volumes that were coming in there,” he said. “With cloud technologies, we were able to go from a volume of 15,000 applicants to over 2 million applicants. We also stood up additional cloud-based contact center tech to help us deal with the tremendous spike in call volume, at a time when we had over 800 calls per second arriving into the state’s call center systems.”

In addition to expanding the capacity, cloud enabled the IT team to implement tools that could directly relieve some of that rapidly expanded workload. “The cloud helped us to play informative messages and to direct people to resources. We were using chatbots and artificial intelligence while we got the human operators trained up and ready to assist those callers,” Sloan said. 

Behind this all lay an aggressive effort to develop enterprise-level controls to cybersecurity. Launched pre-COVID, this too has helped the IT team to navigate the pandemic. 

“We have a governance process and we’ve included representation from all agencies to review the controls and to advise on best processes, with standards around how we execute the various security controls,” he said. “When COVID hit, we had the relationships and the organizational infrastructure in place to facilitate communication in order to be able to respond rapidly.” 

Rhode Island

Rhode Island scored low — a C rating — in the last Digital States Survey. Three years into his tenure as CIO, Bijay Kumar has turned things around. 

“The biggest thing was the cultural shift. We went from being reactive to being proactive,” he said. 

Kumar made it a priority to recruit top IT talent and to put strong governance in place. These moves enabled him to ramp up cloud adoption, which in turn has helped to carry the state through the pandemic. 

“We were heavily virtualized, but we were not on the cloud, and we have moved quite a bit on that. Today we use Amazon and some of the other providers, and we completely implemented Office 365 on the cloud, which was huge from a productivity perspective,” he said. “We did that before COVID, and now it ensures that we can be anywhere in the world and can still work on our core systems.” 

The Department of Labor and Training, unemployment systems, pieces of health and human services  — “all of that is on the cloud now,” he said. “We’ve also moved much of our data warehouse to the cloud.” 

In the midst of the pandemic, Kumar has leveraged that cloud capacity to support a location tracking application for citizens. “Users can track their own location on their phone and can report their health,” he said. “If they contract COVID, they can use it to find out where they have been, who they have been in contact with.” 

The state has also utilized Salesforce in its COVID-19 response. “We did a lot of cutting-edge work with that with case investigations, contact tracing, isolation monitoring. Now with the schools being open we are working on using that in support of education in terms of rapid testing and contact tracing,” he said.

Cloud-based applications likewise have helped Rhode Island to stand up a remote workforce. “We are using cloud for document sharing and collaboration. More importantly, we had the right leadership in place to be able to move quickly to provide those solutions,” Kumar said. 

Going forward, Kumar has a number of other digital initiatives in the works. He’s working to modernize legal case management and procurement systems and the permitting process in the Department of Environmental Management. That department already has seen a shift from 20 percent online forms to 60 percent, and the effort continues. 

The IT team also is working to move an on-premise ERP system into the cloud. “It’s more secure, it’s more supportable,” Kumar said. “Instead of focusing on doing upgrades, the team can focus on business enablement, while things like security and enhancements are taken care of in the cloud.” 

Solid governance has helped Rhode Island to turn the corner on digitization, paired with a keen focus on the human element that ultimately drives technology. “The biggest thing is to do a quick and thorough assessment of people, processes and technology tools,” Kumar said. “We did that, and then we made sure we had the right people and the right competencies in order to execute on our strategies. Addressing the people piece of it, the team, is extremely important.” 

*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. 

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