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Looking Past COVID-19: State CIOs on What Comes Next

While the novel coronavirus has brought new challenges to government IT teams, chief information officers from Georgia, Ohio and Utah discuss the opportunities presented by changing the status quo.

by / May 5, 2020

Since stay-at-home orders and related policies went into effect across the U.S., the same question has been lurking amid daily conversations around COVID-19: What will the world look like when this is all over?

That was the framework for the fourth and final session of the virtual NASCIO midyear conference Tuesday, which covered “The Path Forward: Life and Work After COVID-19.” What was clear was that state CIOs are not looking at a total return to a previous status quo.

As in other NASCIO virtual sessions this week, the consensus is that remote work is here to stay. “We’ve proven we can be just as, if not more, productive from home,” said Ohio CIO Ervan Rodgers.

But when it comes time for a return to physical offices, adaptation will be essential. Georgia CIO Calvin Rhodes stressed the importance of clean physical spaces, like elevators and desks, but also monitoring staff health. While emerging technologies like thermal imaging, checking employee temperatures to track those with symptoms of coronavirus, may be a component of this effort, Rhodes is careful to note that such a move will open up questions around privacy and HIPAA laws, and potential discrimination against those in higher-risk populations. Policies will need to be in place for appropriately addressing those who do show symptoms.

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), also sees a place for cutting edge technologies like the tracking apps in development from Apple and Google. While of course they bring up the same issues Rhodes cited, Atkinson thinks it’s a place where state officials can lead by example in endorsing use of these tools that could help ensure employee safety. And as panel moderator Mike Hussey, CIO of Utah, pointed out, those high-tech tools could also ease anxieties workers may have about returning to state office buildings.

But the CIOs were sure that the persistence of remote work, whether in a full- or part-time basis, will have a lasting impact on state IT. “If we look a year or two down the road,” Rhodes said, “we’ll look at this as an opportunity that has let us be more effective and efficient.”

Rodgers, Hussey and Rhodes all see telework, which was already in use in a limited capacity in their states, as an opportunity to expand their talent pools. In large metro areas like Atlanta and Columbus, for example, a two-hour commute can be prohibitive to individuals who would be great assets to IT teams. Hussey noted that when Utah has opened positions to workers who live beyond that two-hour commute, it has also potentially helped to revitalize economies in some rural parts of his state.

Rhodes calls those employees in farther-flung areas “virtual,” which he sees as distinct from teleworkers, who can come into the office if needed. He even raised the potential to hire staff from out of state.

ITIF’s Atkinson envisions such outside-the-box ideas as great opportunities presented by whatever a post-COVID world holds. He called this moment “a wake-up call for state governments to be thinking mobile-first or at least mobile-equal,” noting an ITIF study that found 20 percent of Americans use mobile devices as their only Internet access. Atkinson also brought up the idea of “embracing a radical automation strategy,” noting that states will have to then grapple with political and social issues around that, as well as transactional questions like how citizens without credit cards would engage with government, and how people would sign documents.

“This is a structural change,” Atkinson said. "This isn’t temporary.”

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Lauren Harrison Managing Editor

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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