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Back to Basics: Government Resilience Goes Beyond Budgets

Public-sector IT budgets are facing unique, though not insurmountable constraints in the wake of COVID-19. CIOs consider the pros and cons of monetary flush times, and how to build a better future.

close up of an empty conference room
Our theme when we started planning for this month’s issue more than a year ago was “Back to Basics: The Essential Components of a Resilient, Recession-Proof Government IT Organization.”

While we surely imagined the country would be in a different place than we currently find ourselves relative to the pandemic, we did anticipate that states and localities would be confronting some challenging budget realities, which explains our choice of the word “recession” as something IT leaders should factor into their planning. But the spotlight in which digital services and work-from-anywhere needs found themselves over the past year-and-a-half led to unprecedented federal support. This infusion of funding translated into financial issues moving down the list of CIO priorities in the Center for Digital Government’s 2021 Digital Counties Survey.* (See more data takeaways in our Digital Counties Survey infographic.) This finding will likely be mirrored when city CIO surveys are released later this year.

Our feature Resilience Rules: Leading IT Through Lean and Flush Times considers the complexities of keeping an IT organization stable and resilient in lean times and in more flush times. Phil Bertolini (now an e.Republic vice president) was CIO of Oakland County, Mich., during the recession that began in 2007, a period he describes as the most challenging of his career as it relates to budgeting. And yet, he describes flush times as “a bit dangerous,” given the uncertainty of how to smartly take advantage of the influx.

Luke Stowe serves as both CIO and administrative services director for the Chicago-area suburb of Evanston, Ill. Budget-wise, Stowe says the city is experiencing both “the best of times and the worst of times.” Revenues and expenses haven’t yet reached pre-pandemic levels, but tens of millions of dollars in one-time federal support are coming their way. A CIO’s considerations in managing this complex scenario are many, including to ensure that investments are sustainable and don’t introduce cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Also for this issue, we conducted a thought experiment of sorts and asked several technology leaders at different levels of government how they would set up an IT organization from the ground up. In From Scratch: 5 CIOs on How They’d Build an IT Agency from the Ground Up, the thoughtful responses we received had some things in common.

Minnesota CIO Tarek Tomes would build in funding flexibility from the outset, to allow space for innovation while getting the core work of government done. He also believes that technology should have the same legal status as critical infrastructure, opening up the possibility of bond-funded IT work. Pointing out that the state Legislature has considered awarding that status to cybersecurity, Tomes advocates for an even broader view. “We are funded to maintain and secure existing services,” he said, “but it can be challenging to recover the cost of new or innovative services.”

Tom Lynch, CIO of Cook County, Ill., wasn’t alone in casting a vote for governance as a foundational component of a new technology agency, with a focus on data governance in particular. “Data integrity with integrated systems is really critical and right now it tends to be an afterthought,” he said. Another priority for Lynch is a business analyst group, empowered to look for tech-related opportunities across business units. Todd Shanley’s IT operation in Cabarrus County, N.C., is much smaller than Lynch’s, but he would set up a project management team to handle communication with customers, as well as manage the change management process, a task that can fall to ill-equipped tech specialists. But it’s not an easy case to make.

“Project management is a soft skill, and people may not want to burn capital to set up an entire group around soft skills. … It’s often something that people realize only in hindsight,” Shanley said.

Many of these ideas support an evolving IT organization that’s no longer strictly technology-focused but incorporates a broader set of skills. And they have the added benefit of positioning technology agencies to deliver on heightened expectations from policymakers and the public.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.
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
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