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Four States Share Realities of the Transition to Telework

On the second day of the virtual NASCIO conference, state CIOs discussed the tech that enabled the quick shift to remote work, whether any of it will stick and how the pandemic will affect digital transformation plans.

Maryland CIO Michael Leahy
e.Republic/Eyragon Eidam
Across the country, technology leaders have found that whatever foundation they had previously laid to prepare their organization for telework has paid dividends during the pandemic. Tools like virtual private networks, virtual desktop infrastructure and “soft” phones via laptops, as well as encryption, multi-factor authentication and other cybersecurity protocols, then, simply had to be scaled up to accommodate an increase in users.

Day two of the virtual NASCIO Midyear event featured a discussion among four state chief information officers about their respective transitions to a largely remote workforce. Moderator and Virginia CIO Nelson Moe was joined by Nebraska CIO Ed Toner, Maryland CIO Michael Leahy and Missouri CIO Jeff Wann for a morning session entitled “Not Business as Usual: Technology and Process Innovations.”

Now that the initial disruption of stay-at-home orders is behind them, the tech leaders reflected on early challenges in quickly buying laptops and licenses for remote work tools and supplementing support resources to ensure newly home-bound workers could do their jobs.

Nebraska’s phased transition began with employees in the most vulnerable groups, Toner explained, referencing an aging workforce typical of many state governments. The state’s continuity of operations (COOP) plan grades the central IT office annually on its preparation for extenuating circumstances, and part of that plan requires testing remote work tools. But many employees in the state’s first remote work phase hadn’t been in the test groups.

“The fact that we phased this in really helped us,” Toner explained, adding that they created additional documentation and videos to help get people set up. Missouri’s Wann predicts that work-at-home will increase significantly now that it has been tested and proven to prior skeptics.

“It’s going to be a sea change for our state government. There had been sort of an aversion to work-at-home before, not so much in IT but outside of IT,” he said. “That has radically changed, and so we’re going to see that going forward."

Virtual IT for Maryland?

Leahy took it a step further, noting similar up-front challenges but an ultimately successful move toward remote work environments in Maryland, especially for IT staff.

“I think folks believe I’m kidding but I’m not. I’m giving serious thought to turning my agency practically, except for our NOC [network operations center], SOC [security operations center], things of that sort, into a virtual agency,” Leahy said.

The move could prove a huge help in addressing pandemic-related budget impacts that governments have started to forecast. Leahy mentioned several leases up for renewal in the coming year. “If we can free up space … we can certainly save substantial amounts on the revenue shortfall in terms of the real estate portfolio,” he said.

Moe asked panelists about whether COVID-19 and its aftermath will impact the trajectory of modernization projects — either in progress or planned. Last year, Nebraska upgraded both its unemployment and DMV systems, both with cloud solutions. And those projects were well-timed, with agency leaders reporting reliable performance in recent weeks in spite of increased demand on digital services.

“What they’re seeing is they survived this fairly well as far as the capacity, the lack of latency and things of that sort,” Toner said. This success, he predicts, will spur more interest in modernizing business processes using technology.

“What they’re seeing is the technology actually held up,” he added. “Where they ran into problems and bottlenecks is where they went to those manual processes.”

Both Wann and Leahy noted as well that the increased technology use during the pandemic has demonstrated its value in helping large government systems and processes run more smoothly, despite many new projects being put on hold due to budget concerns.

“The new technology that we’ve implemented in the last two months has raised some eyebrows in a positive way,” Wann said. “There is a silver lining in this very, very dark cloud.”

The role of the CIO in pandemic response

Beyond establishing and maintaining secure operations during the novel coronavirus outbreak, state chief information officers have also contributed to the response itself, though this help has taken on a distinct shape in each state.

Wann described an effort in Missouri whereby the state is working with partners including Google to create marketplaces in which various stakeholders can post their needs as well as resources. Describing the state’s role as a “matchmaker” of sorts, the next phase will be to match personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers and suppliers. Central IT has also been a resource in tracking and analyzing contact tracing and testing activities.

In Maryland, the IT group has been an integral part of the state’s contact tracing effort, and they are working with the health department to build a mobile app. In addition, Leahy’s staff is assisting in data analytics efforts related to the pandemic.

Toner’s team is also helping to support the cloud-based contact tracing solution that Nebraska is using in partnership with Utah and Iowa. A couple hundred thousand Nebraskans have taken the online survey so far, which is being used to prioritize COVID-19 testing according to need.

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.