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Five Takeaways from State CIOs on Pandemic Response

As NASCIO Midyear goes virtual, state technology chiefs from Tennessee, Massachusetts and Washington share their COVID-19 pivots, what weaknesses were exposed and the foundations being laid for a new normal.

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NASCIO President and New Hampshire CIO Denis Goulet welcomed attendees to a very different gathering of state chief information officers on Monday. For the first time ever, it's a virtual event, with panelists assembling from their home offices across the country in light of travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19. While organizations across the globe have stepped up their virtual meeting capabilities in recent weeks, there is perhaps no group better suited to making a successful transition to an online event.

The opening session was moderated by Washington state CIO Jim Weaver, joined by his counterparts Stephanie Dedmon from Tennessee and Curt Wood from Massachusetts. They spoke of massive shifts toward telework, changing priorities and the ever-growing criticality of technology. Here are five key points from their coronavirus response to date.

Telework preparations paid off

The three state CIOs on the panel described their states’ efforts pre-pandemic to encourage remote work capabilities. While many in government were reluctant to institute the practice on a significant scale before, COVID-19 forced the issue and is bringing skeptics around to its viability.

According to Dedmon, Tennessee has had a formal work-from-home policy in place for about seven years. And while it’s never been used to the degree it is now, the state got a dry run in early March when tornadoes struck the area around the capital city of Nashville. About 30 percent of the workforce could work from home before the pandemic (though not all of those did so full time), while now, the state has about 54 percent of its workforce working remotely full time.

Massachusetts also had enabled telework for five to six years, Wood said. But in early March, only about 1,000 state employees were working from home. As is the case in virtually every state, COVID-19 required a dramatic shift toward remote work, requiring emergency purchasing of thousands of laptops. In addition, the state had to quickly add capacity to its VPN infrastructure. Wood estimates up to 90 percent of what he describes as the “back-office workforce” is working remotely today.

“One of our biggest challenges I think was to be able to transition so quickly with a workforce that was used to working in an office environment or in a field location, and be able to access their apps and understand how to work from home in a prolonged period,” Wood said.

Weaver described Washington’s existing telework policies as “robust,” with an average of about 3,000-5,000 teleworkers before COVID-19 hit. Now that number is closer to 30,000, he said, and is slowly increasing with the additional staff being brought on to manage increased demand on the state unemployment system.

Paradigm shift on cyberthreats

When it comes to traffic patterns on state networks, Weaver has also noted a shift during the pandemic era with the massive move toward telework. Another major change has been adjusting to a new way of managing monthly patches to desktops, he added.

Both Dedmon and Wood noted the effectiveness of past cybersecurity efforts in preparing them to securely withstand external intrusion attempts. “From a network perspective, we’ve certainly seen an uptick in … probes and pings against our network. We’ve seen a lot more activity coming in from Russia and China, but nothing that I don’t think was anticipated,” Wood said.

“We haven’t seen a lot of difference to date,” Dedmon said.

A greater challenge than guarding against more aggressive external threats, the CIOs noted, has been keeping solid cybersecurity practices in place for the newly remote workforce in order to develop understanding of multi-factor authentication tools and guard against things like malicious emails and texts.

Redefining normal: IT is essential

As newly remote workforces near almost the two-month point, IT leaders across the country have pivoted their staff toward a more nimble, problem-solving approach to their work. For Dedmon, it’s definitely not status quo. “Almost every day, something new is needed,” she said, describing the attitude she’s tried to instill with agencies and IT teams. “We’re striving to be seen as enablers and being able to assist to solve problems.”

And emerging tech that may have raised eyebrows in simpler times is now something agencies are more willing to consider. “The emergency situation has made people more open to new technologies,” she added.

In Massachusetts, current events elevated the status of much of the state IT workforce. “Internally in my organization, our IT staff had never really been considered essential personnel before, with the exception of a few,” Wood said. He made that change early on, a critical decision for business continuity.

Industry has proven to be a vital partner

Another theme that emerged from NASCIO’s COVID-19 session was the many ways in which private industry has stepped up to work alongside government to weather this emergency.

Wood talked about a common strain on state government during this time: the dramatic increase in demands on state unemployment systems. Working with AWS, the state was able to stand up a remote call center in three days in order to support the influx. Taking that point a step further, he asked why in the future, that work needed to rely on government office space.

“Government has finally realized what the private sector has known for years: Government can work remotely.” Weaver said, echoing an oft-repeated observation that the current crisis can transform the way work is done in the public sector.

Dedmon agreed that the support of the vendor community offering complete solutions to pressing problems has proven very helpful. “We have had a number of partners who have really stepped up and helped us out, have been able to quickly, in very short order, stand up additional capabilities for a number of our agencies,” she said.

Digital government: strengths and weaknesses exposed

As mentioned relative to emerging technology, the push toward more online services during this time when physical service delivery is limited may help CIOs in the long run. The My TN app recently launched in Tennessee is getting more use of late, alongside expected increases in unemployment and other assistance programs.

In Massachusetts, Wood described available online services as “fairly mature,” though the pandemic has presented some new opportunities. Recent additions include additional communications tools like alerts and text notifications, chatbots, and other automated tools to relieve some of the pressure from state call centers where possible.

With a note of caution, Wood expressed reluctance to get too grandiose with a digital strategy that could prove unwieldy. “This gives us an opportunity to rethink this and prioritize,” he said. “We don’t want to get caught up in something so big that we can’t do anything.” 

Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.