State Tech Leaders Reflect on COVID-19, Path Forward at NASCIO

At the virtual convening of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers this week, sessions looked ahead to improving how states will continue to serve agencies and citizens in a post-pandemic world.

NASCIO President and New Hampshire CIO Denis Goulet.
NASCIO President and New Hampshire CIO Denis Goulet welcomes attendees to the NASCIO Midyear Conference on May 25, 2021.
For the third consecutive time, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) held its bi-annual meeting virtually, convening state technology leaders and staff alongside vendor partners this week for topical discussions on issues like broadband, cybersecurity and the citizen experience.

NASCIO President and New Hampshire CIO Denis Goulet offered a hopeful message to attendees as the event got underway Tuesday, May 25, given the pandemic-related progress in recent weeks. About 700 people registered for the event, which features participation from 45 state chief information officers, according to the organization.

A couple of early interactive event polls underlined the reality of the new way of working: More than 80 percent of event attendees were joining sessions from home, and when it comes to technology investments, most respondents said collaboration tools received the greatest infusion of funds in recent months. Notably, money for collaboration tools to optimize productivity from virtual work environments outranked cloud investments and cybersecurity.

ID MANAGEMENT AND USER EXPERIENCE IN OHIO


Identity management encompasses many of the central issues in any public-sector IT agency. Security, privacy, data sharing — all these are key to ensuring state agencies, employees and residents have an easy time getting what they need from their government online. Ohio is of course no exception, and Gov. Mike DeWine’s 2019 executive order that all state agencies must move to the Innovate Ohio Platform (IOP) meant staff needed to think about how to be sure everyone was signing on to state services securely.

At a NASCIO session on the subject on Wednesday, May 26, Neal Gallucci, technical administrator with IOP, described two levels of identity and access management involved in the platform and the importance of creating a level of trust for both. For state employees, an integration with HR, an already trusted system that does background checks on all workers, creates inherent identity confidence — IOP can be sure a staff member is who they say they are because the state has already verified it. They can then “sponsor” other people, such as county-level workers, creating another layer of identity verification.

For citizen accounts, however, it’s trickier.

Brett Adamik, Ohio identity service manager, explained there are three levels of authentication for users. First is a simple email validation, second is identity proofing and risk assessment via third-party vendor, and the third involves integration with data from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Each level authorizes access to a level of data sensitivity.

But essential to both state workers as well as residents is the user experience (UX), which Gallucci called “crucial in identity management.” Gallucci said that a clean UX is necessary for gaining trust, since users don’t want to be deterred by an overly complicated system. Visitors to government websites run the gamut of demographics — young and old, visually impaired, technologically challenged and so on — so the state needs to be sure their platform is something that everyone can use and get right on the first try.

To ensure accessibility and ease of use, Gallucci said, IOP has a UX architect whose job is to study user behaviors to see what about the site is tripping people up and how to improve upon it. Adamik pointed to a partnership with an organization in Cleveland for the visually impaired that helps make sure that community’s needs are met. Both tactics mean more time and effort up front that will pay off for users.

Improved user experience also helps on the service side: If fewer users need help logging in to an account, that means Ohio can reduce the number of people it has staffing call centers to solve simple issues and redirect those resources to other areas.

CITIZEN-FIRST IN MASSACHUSETTS


As many tech chiefs have explained in the past several months, the pandemic has served as an accelerant to initiatives that had made their way into strategy documents but not much further before the lockdowns in March 2020. But Esri Director of Government and Policy Solutions Pat Cummens noted in an afternoon session with Massachusetts CIO Curt Wood that the terms citizen engagement and citizen experience carry different meanings for different people. As the concepts have gained ground in the past few years, however, some best practices have started to emerge.

“This past year has demonstrated the importance of government and of government service,” said Wood. “We’ve made some great foundational commitments, but I think we have so much more to go.”

Massachusetts’ turn toward citizen experience is fueled in part by an 8,000-strong citizen focus group that weighs in on how the state delivers digital services via mass.gov. Efforts like this volunteer cohort help push tech efforts in a citizen-focused direction, moving the state away from viewing engagement as one-way information delivery.

Another aspect of this push involves acceptance of the need for targeted services for specific audiences. Noting the varied nature of the thousands of government services different agencies are responsible for, Wood accepts that this is a paradigm shift away from the status quo.

“How do we transform our state agencies, our people, to think like this as opposed to doing things the same old way?”

While 2020 and early 2021 have brought some challenges, including early struggles with an overtaxed online vaccine reservation system, Wood pointed to a couple of successes in the digital shift COVID-19 brought about. The state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) debuted an online appointment system and other online services that have been well received. Citizens also took to the chatbot the state deployed to answer questions about unemployment benefits. These successful use cases went a long way toward convincing agencies of the potential of these technologies to help serve people more effectively.

Wood is optimistic that lessons learned this year will bear fruit for the state as the nation emerges from the pandemic. “Coming back as a hybrid workforce, this past year has really energized us and put us in a position to target some success in these areas,” he said.
Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she 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. She can be reached via email and on Twitter. Follow @GovTechNoelle
Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.
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