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Technology Must Be Focused on the ‘Human Experience’

Public-sector CIOs and other tech leaders say making deeper human connections is increasingly vital even as artificial intelligence makes quick advances. Experts offered examples of how to proceed in this new world.

Nikhil Deshpande and Tarek Tomes during the NASCIO Midyear conference, May 2, 2023.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — It's not just the technology. It's the trust.

On the second full day of the NASCIO 2023 Midyear Conference in a suburb of Washington, D.C., speakers emphasized the importance of connecting with constituents even as agencies focus more on cutting-edge technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.

That point was perhaps most powerfully made by Tarek Tomes, commissioner and CIO for Minnesota, during a Tuesday morning session.

Tomes told a story about getting to know an elderly man via daily visits to a local coffee shop and how the man thanked him for improving the system that allowed him to easily transfer and gain possession of his wife’s vanity license plate.

“We are there to improve the experience of the people we work for,” Tomes said. “You cannot evolve unless you involve the people you are doing it for.”

Making human connections — and the role of story and meaning in doing so — stood as prime themes this week at the NASCIO conference.

On Monday, for instance, Don Yeager, a former editor and current storytelling expert who has interviewed the likes of NBA legend Michael Jordan, encouraged CIOs and other state tech leaders to learn to craft narratives that could help them advance their projects and steer decisions.

“To date I have yet to meet anyone who can tell a great story about a spreadsheet,” he said.

Telling a compelling story requires learning more about the person on the other end of the communication.

“Nothing makes someone more interested in you than when they realize you have taken time to learn something about them,” Yeager said.

Then, on Tuesday, technology writer Katie O’Neil offered her view of how to think about the future, a view that she said goes beyond the simple dichotomy of dystopia versus utopia — concepts that are increasingly coming to mind as AI advances. She urged the NASCIO audience to ask questions centered around humans and human meaning, and not to assume that software will be able to handle such tasks.

Next came the session with Tomes, where he and Nikhil Deshpande, Georgia’s chief digital officer, focused on how to create better citizen engagement — a reflection of NASCIO’s survey about the top priorities in 2023 for state chief information officers. Cybersecurity and risk management stands as the most important concern on that list, followed by improving the digital citizen experience.

As Deshpande put it: “How do you create a culture that truly fosters the idea of human experience? What needs to happen to have that mindset?”

It’s not only finding the stories that can spark innovation that appeal to wide swaths of the population, Tomes said, but taking cues from the larger world. He used the efficiency of mobile ordering as an example of reaching and pleasing more people via digital government services.

“We try to demonstrate that we value people’s time,” Tomes said, “and that we do everything we can to give you that time back.”

He described Minnesota’s work to improve the application process for food benefits. What he called “empathy interviews” with people who used that service helped tech staff determine the proper and most desired changes to that process.

The state was able to reduce the time it takes to navigate the application site from more than an hour to 10 minutes.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.