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In Capable Hands: State CIOs Step Up in Unprecedented Times

In the past year, a dozen new state chief information officers have taken up their roles, many amid the early throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what they're up to in the months ahead.

by / July/August 2020

In the last 12 months, a dozen new state CIOs have been named. And what an environment these tech leaders have entered, some literally in the throes of a global pandemic that tested the capability and flexibility of state technology systems like never before. Of the tech leaders we profile in Leadership Profiles: New CIOs Take the Reins in 12 States, seven assumed the role in early 2020, many in March, the month when the country’s first stay-at-home orders were issued. 

In May, the country crested 100,000 fatalities from the novel coronavirus — a grim milestone that seemed inconceivable as the calendar turned to 2020. And while state leaders were rightly focused on the health and safety of their communities, they also grappled with how to maintain the operations of critical government services. If governors weren’t closely acquainted with their top technology officials before the outbreak, it’s safe to say they are now. 

This group brings a diverse set of work and life experiences to their roles as state CIOs — breadth that will serve them well as they look to navigate unprecedented circumstances. North Carolina’s Tracy Doaks now finds herself in a more public-facing role, after having served for four years as a more back-office technologist as deputy CIO for the state.

“Now my focus has expanded to all facets of the Department of Information Technology,” Doaks explained, “so that includes cybersecurity, data analytics, rural broadband, 911, digital transformation.” 

Similarly, Iowa’s Annette Dunn — a veteran among this group, having been named CIO in August 2019 — noted similarities between her prior role as CIO of the state’s Department of Transportation and her statewide position, albeit on a bigger stage.

By now, they’ve transitioned their workforces to enable remote productivity and brought them back to the office again, though perhaps not as many as pre-pandemic. They will continue to play a critical part in navigating what both onsite and virtual work environments need to function. 

And then they’ll need to confront the pivot back toward essential technology upgrades that were put on the back burner in order to address more pressing issues. As the economy begins to recover from mass closures, government budgets will suffer severe shortfalls, forcing plans to be re-evaluated. This will add layers of complexity to their jobs.

“We’re looking at precipitous declines in revenue over the next six, 12, 18 months,” said Michigan CIO Brom Stibitz, who took the helm in March 2020 following five years of tech leadership for the state. “So there’s going to be more pressure than ever on IT to (a) find efficiencies within what we’re doing, and (b) to find solutions that can help agencies or customers save money.”

They will need to draw upon their passion for public service in order to successfully communicate priorities and jockey for needed resources in an environment with previously unseen constraints. 

But many have noted what new Missouri CIO Jeff Wann described as a “silver lining in a very dark cloud” of COVID-19. The pandemic has helped expedite plans for IT transformation and modernization, and proved just how impactful those efforts can be. Missouri’s IT group quickly stood up chatbots to help deal with an influx of citizen inquiries and partnered on a “matchmaking” project of sorts to pair PPE suppliers with the needs of health-care organizations. Further, IT upgrades were carried out quickly to meet pandemic-related needs.  

We will be following the work of this new class of state CIOs closely, both on the pages of this magazine and with our daily reporting at govtech.com. The challenges they face are great, but they stand ready to meet them and press forward with modernizing their infrastructure and workforce for the challenges that lie ahead. 

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Noelle Knell Editor

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.

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