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Arkansas CTO Askins on Running Government Like a Business

In his first year as Arkansas chief technology officer, Jonathan Askins brings his private-sector background to bear on state IT modernization, broadband and where the state stands in its ongoing data work.

Jonathan Askins Arkansas CTO
Jonathan Askins took over as Arkansas chief technology officer and director of the state’s Division of Information Systems (DIS) at the end of 2020. While his career has primarily been in private industry, he has worked periodically on state initiatives, most recently as vice chair of Arkansas’ Data Transparency Commission. GT talked to Askins in April about IT modernization, broadband and why a government IT agency should be thinking like a business.

1. What brought you to government from the private sector?

Gov. Hutchinson was a customer of mine when I was at Acxiom and he was at the Department of Homeland Security, way back in the early 2000s. I got this phone call [about coming to the state] and I thought it would be pretty neat to try to implement his vision in an agency that really should be thinking like a business. When you’re talking about cost allocation and you’re pushing out to agencies, you’re a B2B company from a standpoint of providing good customer service and doing things right.

2. What’s the status of Arkansas’ ongoing data work?

We’re building out a statewide longitudinal data system, and DIS in particular is focused on the identity management and governance around that. Think of a typical hub-and-spoke diagram: I would not presume to hire data scientists that could talk about health and epidemiology. That’s the health department. They can run those kinds of analytics, but we will run the analytics around identity management, create the links and push that data back out to the agencies. From a governance standpoint, we want to make sure we don’t have any cowboys out there trying to share agency to agency without permissions. We try to make sure privacy policies are in place, and each agency gets “keys” or “IDs,” and my key [as a citizen] over in this agency might be 123 and in this agency it’s 794, and there’s no way to make that match without coming back through [DIS].

3. Earlier this year the governor signed legislation allowing municipal broadband networks. What are some of the challenges around getting everyone connected?

There’s a large portion of Arkansans below the federal poverty line. So it’s one thing to get the infrastructure in place, but then we have to make sure that connectivity is at an affordable price that the average Arkansan can actually utilize it. And we are a natural state and some of our rural areas are hard to get that broadband to. For example, we’re trying to get connectivity and fiber to a lot of our state parks. Well, some of our parks are sitting in river valleys or on top of mountains that are solid stone, so actually getting fiber run up to a lodge or down inside some valleys, that’s a trick. So we’ve got a few things going against us, but we continue to work on it and to make sure providers get the grants needed, and then make sure that it’s affordable.

4. What’s the hardest thing to modernize in IT?

We have to modernize an attitude. If you’re modernizing and consolidating, a lot of times an agency may have a server that is serving them fine, but it’s old in the tooth, and if you want to modernize it, it’s going to cost some money. So getting folks to understand the risk associated with not modernizing, to me that is the hardest part of this. The IT and the physical parts, just putting the machines in and doing the migration, that’s easier than doing a paradigm shift and making sure everyone has the same kind of cold sweats and nightmares that my CISO and I have, wondering, “Oh gosh, who are they going to try to hit tonight?” because the bad guys just get smarter and more aggressive. Security goes hand in hand with modernizing, so making sure that we have that paradigm shift that yeah, it’s great to save money, but let’s make sure that we save it in the right areas and that we are keeping things up to date.
Lauren Kinkade is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.