State CIOs Look to Future With Digital Services, Hybrid Work

NASCIO Midyear wraps up with a look at the new reality of part remote, part in-person work, as well as an exploration of the massive gains in digital service delivery during the pandemic.

three computer screens showing a session at the virtual NASCIO Midyear Conference
Emily Lane/NASCIO
The 2021 NASCIO Midyear conference came to an end yesterday, and officials, including NASCIO President Denis Goulet, are hopeful it will be the last one conducted virtually. The organization’s annual conference is tentatively scheduled as a live event in Seattle in October.

Organized around daily themes of “lead, collaborate and inspire,” the three-day midyear event featured fewer sessions than the in-person gatherings, with many nods to the challenges of working virtually. An interactive poll conducted during the event, though, revealed that nearly half of attendees — both public and private sector — said the transition to remote work was “very easy.”

Among the issues weighing on state technology leaders at this point in the pandemic are the next iteration of work and the steady march toward citizen-focused digital services.

GLORY DAYS FOR DIGITAL SERVICES


Digital services came in second in the NASCIO priority survey in 2021 — a fact broadly supported by lived experience in the digital wave that swept the country alongside the pandemic. Citizens still needed to conduct business with government as taxes still came due and licenses still needed to be renewed. But a trip to a government facility was less likely given stay-at-home restrictions, so the public took to the Internet en masse.

Digitization efforts shifted into high gear as government organizations rose to meet the escalating demand. Arizona CIO J.R. Sloane reported that the state has added 266 online services since last July. During that same time frame, the state has processed more than $147 million in online payments, representing a transaction count in excess of 550,000.

Georgia Chief Technology Officer Steve Nichols noted the same uptick in technologies that helped states quickly answer growing digital needs. The top three growth areas he observed were cloud solutions, noting their scalability; low- and no-code solutions, deployed at scale in unprecedented ways; and chatbots, called into service in a majority of states to answer routine questions and relieve pressure on call center staff. And the stats back up how critical chatbot technology has been to states’ pandemic response: In Georgia, Nichols reported that chatbots answered 2.5 million citizen questions by the end of 2020.

Like Massachusetts, Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Department (MVD) added capabilities during the pandemic. Sloane noted that the agency was already in the midst of an overhaul, but added online services like digital title transfers. Other digital initiatives benefited similarly from the momentum created by the pandemic, putting agencies in the mode of “closing the last mile to digital services,” Sloane said. He described the state’s vaccine registration system as an iterative project with weekly releases featuring improvements and new features. Upcoming projects include a business one-stop portal, a multi-agency effort to help remove friction for Arizona business owners. The one-stop project will take advantage of technology first deployed during the recent MVD upgrades.

Technologists at Sloane’s session pointed out that there are broad definitions of “digital services,” advocating for a customer-focused view of service delivery. Simply putting a PDF on a website, Sloane said, “is better than nothing, but the bar is higher than that now.”

A MATTER OF TRUST


Speakers at the “Projecting to 2025” session, moderated by Texas Department of Information Resources Executive Director Amanda Crawford, grappled with citizen trust in government, noted by Pew Research Center Director of Internet and Technology Research Lee Rainie as “quite low,” mentioning the variability of people’s information ecosystems as one contributing factor.

Bill Eggers, executive director of the Center for Government Insights for Deloitte, pointed to recent citizen surveys indicating that state government is more trusted than the federal government. “Local governments are the most trusted,” he added. Eggers also offered trust data at the state agency level: The most trusted are child-care agencies, and agencies with low trust numbers include unemployment and the DMV.

But how does citizen trust impact government’s ability to effectively deliver services?

Rainie pointed out that COVID-19 contact tracing efforts were stymied by a skeptical citizenry. “So many people were so wary,” he said. “What would happen to their data? Who would be the custodian? With whom was it going to be shared?”

Rainie added, though, that people generally appreciate the convenience of government services that are offered online. But like many state technology leaders observed, Nichols explained that the pandemic exposed issues around accessibility. With 65 percent of Georgia’s traffic coming from mobile devices, applications that didn’t work well on mobile stood out.

“When you force all your constituents into a digital channel, you better be ready for that,” he said.

WORKFORCE IN THE BALANCE


In a NASCIO survey fielded in early 2020, just three state CIOs put remote work on their list of workforce priorities. Nearly 18 months and one pandemic later, of course, it’s a different story. What the new government workforce looks like was a popular topic at the Midyear conference, especially as states look to bring staff back to offices — or not.

“We’ve been through a giant social experiment in the last 15 months,” said Pew’s Rainie, “and we’re heading into an even bigger one.”

How that social workforce experiment plays out so far varies from state to state, although most seem to have landed on some mix of in-person and remote work. In a session Tuesday afternoon, Wisconsin CIO Trina Zanow said her state is looking at three options going forward, combining permanent remote work with some in-office staff, with an emphasis on flexibility. CIO Calvin Rhodes noted that Georgia had already embraced telework in the last several years, with positions classified as remote or in person, and they’ll continue with that plan, along with more possibility to recruit some positions from out of state. In Montana, said CIO Kevin Gilbertson, the plan is to bring everyone who was in the office pre-pandemic back and then evaluate adjustments going forward with an overall goal of reducing government’s footprint.

All of these scenarios to some degree create a hybrid workforce, which panelists at the “Projecting to 2025” session viewed with some trepidation, despite its seeming inevitability. The worry comes not from whether productivity will decrease, but how hybrid work will affect culture.

“I’m not concerned from a technology perspective,” explained Crawford, “but from a logistical and management perspective how we’re able to keep cohesive teams.”

Rainie echoed this, and said a hybrid workforce “surfaces new fissures,” like differences in generational experience, between introverts and extroverts, and ensuring in-person and remote workers aren’t treated differently, so unfairness doesn’t creep in.

These are big issues for leaders to tackle as agencies move forward post-pandemic. In a recent Microsoft workforce survey, encompassing both the private and public sectors, 54 percent of respondents reported feeling overworked while working remotely; they saw a 148 percent increase in weekly meeting times and 42 percent more Teams chats after hours. This means leaders, CIOs included, need to look for ways to encourage better work-life balance.

Noting a mindfulness training his staff went through, which he said he wouldn’t have thought valuable pre-COVID-19, Maine CIO Fred Brittain has learned that when it comes to keeping a remote or hybrid workforce engaged, it’s important to “reach for ideas you might never have considered before.”
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.
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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