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Modernizing Government’s Most High-Tough, High-Visibility Programs

Smart industry and automation concept. Internet of things. IOT, Technology concept.

Coming out of the pandemic, state and local government technology leaders are facing a once-in-a-career opportunity to modernize some of their jurisdictions’ most mission-critical systems and functions — but they must act quickly.

Coming out of the pandemic, state and local government technology leaders are facing a once-in-a-career opportunity to modernize some of their jurisdictions’ most mission-critical systems and functions — but they must act quickly. Looming budget shortfalls and ongoing operational challenges, including the loss of 1.3 million jobs from state and local governments, are challenging CIOs to leverage unprecedented waves of federal funding in ways that will allow their governments to remain nimble and responsive to constituent needs in future crises.

Many governments that relied on cloud solutions to meet immediate demands in areas ranging from unemployment insurance to education during the pandemic are now looking to modernize their underlying IT infrastructure to expand digital services and improve internal operations. However, much work remains to be done during the short window when federal funding is available: Only 12 percent of states, eight percent of cities and four percent of counties have moved more than half of their systems and applications to the cloud, according to the most recent Digital States, Cities and Counties surveys conducted by the Center for Digital Government (CDG).

This article examines challenges and opportunities in some of the most high-touch, highly visible areas of government operations and service delivery and offers recommendations to guide modernization efforts.

“Government is [typically] constrained by its own processes,” says Celeste O’Dea, business development director for the public sector at Oracle. “I think the silver lining of this perfect storm of issues is that it has made them think outside the box. It has forced them to challenge the norm of how they execute.”


Arguably no other government service was as critical during the pandemic as the need to deliver unemployment benefits quickly and at an unprecedented scale — as many as one in four American workers received unemployment aid at some point during the pandemic. Many state unemployment agencies were still running legacy mainframe systems or had call centers and online services that couldn’t respond to the massive surge of demand.

“For state agencies that could rapidly deliver on constituent expectations, the common denominator seemed to be a cloud infrastructure built to scale workloads and be managed remotely,” says William Sanders, Oracle’s director of strategy and business development.

In Mississippi, for example, the state’s unemployment insurance system was able to meet constituent needs by scaling its cloud hosting environment and adding staff. “Our system was already modernized to be able to log in remotely, so we could create space in the office for other staff to come in,” says Timothy Rush, the department of employment security’s deputy executive director and COO.

Moving beyond the pandemic, governments can integrate existing systems with new solutions that address self-service, eligibility or other parts of the process, with the underlying cloud architecture allowing these solutions to scale based on demand.

“The ability to use a flexible infrastructure to meet peak demand, rather than an overpriced and overprovisioned configuration, just makes sense,” says Sanders, who previously served as CIO for the Kansas Department of Labor. “With autoscaling, you can use the resources according to your immediate business needs and scale up or down without any human intervention.”

Cloud solutions can also help agencies address fraud, which surfaced as a significant challenge during the pandemic, according to Sanders. Solutions that automate eligibility verification or leverage artificial intelligence can pinpoint anomalies such as claims coming from foreign IP addresses or payments to multiple claimants routed to the same bank account. “These are things that may be difficult for a human to catch, but not so for a cloud-based system,” Sanders says.


Health and human services (HHS) agencies serve some of their communities’ most at-risk constituents while managing some of the most complex government programs. As with unemployment, the pandemic increased demand for agency services, straining resources and systems. In response, some agencies leveraged the cloud to rapidly stand up critical solutions.

In Los Angeles, for example, the city provided $36 million in direct financial assistance to more than 35,000 of the most impacted households through a rapidly deployed self-service solution that automated eligibility verification through the city’s enterprise system.

And in Tarrant County, Texas, the public health department launched a web-based self-screening and appointment scheduling application for COVID-19 testing within two weeks. Equally important, the solution collected data for a detailed dashboard to “not only help our testing facilities operate more effectively, but also arm us with valuable information to keep our communities safe,” says Vinny Taneja, the county’s director of Public Health.

In similar fashion, data will guide HHS modernization efforts going forward, according to Bob Nevins, Oracle’s director of state and local government strategy. “Data is always at the core of any HHS solution, and learning how to capture, store, mine and analyze that data can be the key that unlocks effective human services delivery methods,” says Nevins, who previously served in senior roles in Massachusetts state government.

At the same time, truly effective modernization requires using hybrid systems — a combination of on-premises platforms that store and safeguard sensitive data and cloud-based platforms and solutions that can help scale services and improve delivery, including chatbots, self-service applications and eligibility automation. And the ability to aggregate and analyze data from once-siloed human services programs offers leaders the opportunity to develop a more comprehensive view of constituents and coordinate service delivery in new ways.

“Agency heads are now eager to learn the answers to questions they didn’t even know they needed to ask,” Nevins says.


Unlike unemployment and health and human services agencies, transportation agencies saw less activity during the pandemic, as stay-at-home orders and the proliferation of remote work reduced traffic and transit. However, these agencies lost significant revenues — from gas taxes, transit revenues, and tolls and fees — at a time when they must prepare for the next generation of connected vehicles and smart city innovations.

The connected vehicle revolution is already here. Ninety-one percent of all new cars sold in the U.S. in 2020 — more than 13 million vehicles — had embedded cellular modems allowing them to connect to the internet and share data. These vehicles, as well as road sensors, cameras and other connected devices, can allow transportation departments to understand and act on conditions in real time. They can also help inform long-term capital planning. But for governments, the sheer scope of the data they generate will be daunting.

“[Governments] expect to see exponential data growth from different cars and different sensors that produce terabytes of data per day,” says Lew Gaskell, Oracle transportation program leader. “How do you turn this data into action?”

Cloud solutions can aggregate structured and unstructured data from a wide array of connected vehicles and devices, opening the door for real-time and predictive analytics. Doing so can provide better information to drivers, such as current traffic conditions, the fastest routes using public transit or wayfinding through an airport using augmented reality (AR) technology. Aggregating and analyzing data from connected vehicles also allows governments to automate fleet management and other labor-intensive processes, as well as collaborate with their regional counterparts to plan and coordinate wide-scale projects.

“Agencies are data rich and information poor,” Gaskell says. “Cloud services give them the capability to have timely access to consolidated data.”


All government services rely heavily on back-office processes — processes which were challenged by the abrupt shift to remote work during the pandemic. But the solutions state and local governments rapidly stood up to continue meeting constituent needs provide a roadmap for the agility that will define modernization efforts going forward.

In Oklahoma, for example, IT support staff implemented a chatbot to triage help desk calls from newly remote workers in just eight days and developed a mobile app to track COVID-related purchases and hours. In Jackson, Miss., city officials created kiosks to allow residents to pay bills without face-to-face contact. These projects are examples of “bite-sized things [governments] were able to deploy quickly that had a material impact on their operations,” O’Dea says.

Agile, cloud-based systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) simplify routine processes such as tax rate or policy changes that previously may have required custom coding. They can scale to meet unexpected surges in demand and simplify budgeting. And they can help automate once-manual processes that have traditionally kept government moving more slowly than the private sector. For example, cloud-based HR solutions offer agility by allowing candidates to self-schedule interviews, integrating testing and other required materials, and providing new hires the opportunity to complete many onboarding tasks before their first day, says Sarjoo Shah, industry executive director for Oracle’s state and local government practice.

Importantly, cloud-based solutions also provide redundancy through high-availability architecture, which is “a mostly overlooked item, but [essential] if you’re looking at business continuity during disruptive events such as the pandemic,” says Shah, who previously served as CIO for Oklahoma’s health and human services cabinet.


For state and local governments, past is prologue. In Mississippi, it was the influx of federal relief following Hurricane Katrina that allowed the state to begin modernizing its unemployment insurance system, according to Guy Martin, deputy executive director and CFO of the state’s unemployment department. And now, unprecedented amounts of federal COVID relief and infrastructure funding provide state and local governments with opportunities to do more than offset projected downturns in revenue. By modernizing systems in these and a host of other high-priority areas, including education, courts, public safety and more, they have the potential to ensure these services will remain responsive to changing needs in future crises.

But modernization will look very different from previous IT efforts. Sanders outlines three major strategies governments are likely to follow when considering modernizing complex applications and systems.

  1. Full-scale “rip and replace” operations migrate entire systems, although governments are now more likely to do so in a more modular fashion over time to lower implementation risks. Even so, such projects can take years and are too often based on static requirements and assumptions that may shift before the project is complete.
  2. “Move and improve” efforts shift key operating environments to the cloud, thereby increasing performance and capacity with minimal user disruption.
  3. An “edge” approach focuses on increasing time to value by targeting the highest-priority improvements and rapidly standing up solutions. Given the lessons learned during the unpredictable past 18 months, many governments will likely focus on these kinds of projects by deploying agile solutions that can leverage the common development platform of the cloud environment, according to Sanders. Such solutions typically address one piece of the puzzle — such as automating eligibility verification for unemployment insurance — and work with existing systems. Cloud development platforms also allow local governments to sandbox and test a wide range of small, innovative solutions that can streamline larger processes.
“What they really want to do is stand up and fail fast with proofs of concepts,” Gaskell says. “Cloud allows you to do that.”

Even as they shift to more rapid and responsive deployment strategies, one of governments’ greatest needs — securing systems and the sensitive data in them — will remain unchanged. Cloud-based solutions can “strengthen the security posture” through a host of built-in security controls, Zero-Trust networking architecture, encryption, and automation and AI which can pinpoint suspicious behavior both within and outside of government systems, Shah says.

Shifting the approach to technology modernization could also change the way governments address ongoing challenges, according to O’Dea. “The ability to be nimble is the new paradigm for them,” she says. “You’ve got to break things down into something you can consume quickly and easily, and those are quick wins for government, whether it is states, localities, hospitals, utility districts or education. Think about how you can do that in consumable chunks that you can execute quickly. I think that’s going to be key.”

For more information on how to fast-track government modernization with federal funding, view Government Technology’s series of four webinars co-sponsored by Oracle and Intel around the areas of unemployment, back-office processes, health and human services, and transportation.