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Harmonizing Government IT Will Take More Than Money

A U.S. House hearing last week heard testimony from experts who underlined the disconnect between federal, state and local IT as well as how leadership can stall efforts to improve digital user experience and cybersecurity.

Doug Robinson
NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson during the hearing
Memories of vital government operations hamstrung by technology failures during the pandemic remained fresh in mind for U.S. House Representatives and witnesses who recently convened to discuss modernizing state and local government IT systems and critical services.

Last year saw skyrocketing demand overwhelm state and local government websites and systems that had not been designed in ways that would allow them to easily or quickly scale up to meet such high usage. All the while, agencies struggled against increasingly frequent cyberattacks.

Federal officials, in turn, were confronted by their dependency on states’ IT capabilities to ensure federal aid was successfully distributed, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who convened the House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on June 25.

“Outdated IT nearly stopped us from providing life-saving assistance that was needed during the pandemic,” Connolly said.

Federal efforts to keep feeding students who lost access to free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch when schools closed ran into hurdles, as one such example.

Although the federal government provided relief money, state and school district officials were the ones that had to identify eligible individuals, determine recipients’ current locations and distribute the EBT cards onto which the funds were loaded, said Amanda Renteria, CEO of nonprofit Code for America, during the hearing. IT challenges at these lower levels of government left many officials struggling with tasks like data matching and updating contact details, she said.

Now federal officials are looking to understand how to smooth out and head off such frictions. As part of this, Connolly said he intends to introduce a House companion bill to the Senate’s State and Local Digital Services Act, which would provide grants for improving user experience and modernizing technology that underpins essential services.

But fresh funding alone is unlikely to be enough. Many of those testifying and asking questions during the hearing said that generating greater top-level commitment for certain IT investments, plugging cybersecurity talent gaps and engaging IT personnel early in decision-making all can improve state and local efforts to deliver services that are accessible, reliable and secure.


The pandemic put a spotlight on the strains residents can face when trying to get their needs met.

Government officials have traditionally taken the view that they do not need to prioritize user experience, because their monopoly on offering public services gives them a guaranteed customer base, said Alan Shark, executive director of COMPTIA’s Public Technology Institute. But that attitude is changing.

A 2020 survey from the Center for Digital Government* found state, local and county governments listing “citizen engagement/experience” among their top three priorities, according to written testimony from Teri Takai, vice president of e.Republic.

Takai said during the hearing that agencies must start considering how residents find information and access services across all of government, and what their overall experiences are like. This can be a marked change from traditional approaches that see agencies focus simply on publicizing information about their own individual operations and which force users to work around how governments have chosen to organize their departments.

Shark noted that grant programs rewarding good design can further encourage a shift toward user friendliness, while Renteria underscored the importance of officials to solicit firsthand perspectives of those who have attempted to access social services.

Of course, even the most visually appealing, streamlined government website falls short if residents lack the affordable Internet access to use it. Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), said that 81 percent of state CIOs surveyed about their post-COVID-19 plans by his organization said they intend to speed up broadband expansion efforts.


Making digital services compelling and secure also requires state governments to include their IT departments in discussions about new projects in the initial planning stages. This can lead to more digital-friendly design as well as improve project management, speakers said.

Takai said bringing IT to the discussion table would ensure that technology costs and implementation timelines are accounted for during planning — something not always done today. Shark said such engagement also could head off problems in which non-IT officials make unrealistic expectations about the technological capabilities of such undertakings.


The pandemic caught officials by surprise, to say the least. It redefined visions of “crisis” from a one-time disaster to something that could last months, Takai said in her written testimony. Preparing for unpredictable future events requires officials to be ready to act flexibly and fast, said Robinson.

Using cloud services can enable states to more easily scale offerings, and adopting solutions from private partners allows governments to ramp up their capabilities faster than if they took the time to develop these tools in-house, he said.

Not everything can be outsourced, however, and jurisdictions need the right talent on staff. States are struggling to hire enough workers skilled in advanced cybersecurity, application development, cloud maintenance and migration and user-centric design, Robinson said.

The shift to telework offers hope of some reprieve, however, because states are no longer limited to only recruiting professionals within their borders. Internships and efforts to train existing staff can also be useful for expanding the talent pool, Shark said.


Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said that achieving these goals might not require higher federal funding, but simply more judicial use of it, and said he worried about state and local officials investing federal money outside of the intended areas.

Robinson said that providing grants that are restricted for cybersecurity investment can help combat funding misuse. Efforts to communicate needs to state leadership may also be helpful: Robinson said studies find a high portion of CIOs saying they want to prioritize technology modernization more heavily, but that it is unclear if other government leadership will back up these goals.

Shark commented similarly that high-level public officials often fail to recognize the significance of modernizing cybersecurity approaches. His organization surveyed local government cybersecurity programs last year and found nearly 54 percent of respondents saying elected officials are “not engaged” in cybersecurity efforts.

“Professionals that are at the forefront of protecting our digital infrastructure were often lacking the support from those people they report to,” Shark said.


Reducing costs on state and local governments may also help their dollars go further.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said that states can feel hamstrung by a plethora of time-consuming federal regulations. He and others pushed for streamlining and harmonizing the federal rules that states are asked to comply with to ensure their cybersecurity efforts meet certain standards.

This is a longtime goal of groups like NASCIO, with Robinson pointing to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that examined four federal agencies and found 49 percent to 79 percent of their “security requirement parameters” conflicted.

Connolly touted his proposed Restore the Partnership Act, which aims to create an avenue of greater conversation between state, local, tribal and federal partners, and which he said could be a useful vehicle to discuss finding less burdensome but still impactful regulations.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a senior staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.