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Georgia CIO Shawnzia Thomas on Getting an On-the-Ground View

New state CIO Shawnzia Thomas is focusing on expanding broadband, pushing cybersecurity best practices and taking an employee’s-eye view to technology adoptions in her first few months on the job.

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Shutterstock/ESB Professional<br/>
Shawnzia Thomas is nearing her third month as state CIO and director of the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA), where she said she strives to take a worker’s-eye view to agencies’ technology needs.

Shawnzia Thomas.jpg
Courtesy of Shawnzia Thomas
Many state government agencies are wrestling with “antiquated” processes and tools, and the GTA aims to be their go-to consultant for modernization. Her staff can draw on an extensive knowledge of vendors and the latest technology advancements to advise agencies on how to make tasks more efficient and planned projects easier to achieve.

If all goes well, technology updates could remove a lot of workforce headaches. These adoptions can not only help agencies streamline processes and amplify employee efforts, but also better position themselves to recruit more talent, she told Government Technology.

“If you have old technology, you're not going to get these Gen Zs and these millennials to come into your offices because the work is boring,” said Thomas, who took office on July 1.

AN EMPLOYEE PERSPECTIVE


For the CIO and her team, finding the right tool to help an agency often means talking not just with department leadership but also staff serving on the front lines — an approach Thomas is pushing in her first months and which she hopes to see continued.

The Department of Driver Services has been looking to adopt voice bots to answer common requests constituents make over the phone, for example, and Thomas said she wanted to get hands-on experience of these conversations to guide technology recommendations. Although she said she initially hoped to answer a few such calls herself, the agency’s director will instead provide her with several recorded phone calls.

But a CIO is unlikely to always have the time to get on-the-ground views of operations personally. Keeping up the approach long-term could require a different strategy, and Thomas said she’s discussing creating a strike team charged with engaging with and gathering feedback from different agencies’ workers.

JUMP-STARTING THE WORKFORCE



Thomas believes that adopting more current technology could also help agencies recruit younger job seekers who are likely to be looking for an innovative working environment. But at the same time, agencies will want to ensure that modernizations do not alienate older workers who may have established ways for doing things and be reluctant to change.

Striking this balance requires selecting technologies that are straightforward and require little user training — something that the CIO’s team can advise on, Thomas said.

Limited staffing — along with greater citizen dependence on online services — has seen some departments lean more heavily on digital customer services tools, trends that are likely to continue.

Thomas said that the Department of Human Services deployed bots last year to augment the efforts of employees who were trying to quickly process online applications for Medicaid, SNAP, TANF and WIC — the kinds of services where delays can cause real pain. The automated tools handled applications renewals, leaving caseworkers freer to focus on new applications. The bots will likely keep playing a key role for the near future as the pandemic continues to drive up need, Thomas said.

Still, supporting internal technology use alone isn’t enough. Even as demand for online services grows, other constituents are less able to take advantage of these digital offerings due to insufficient or lacking broadband.

The state is currently making a major push on what Thomas said is a “very extensive” broadband need that has existed long before the pandemic turned a spotlight on the issue. Even major metropolitan areas like Atlanta’s have underserved sections, and Georgia is taking advantage of federal funding to accelerate efforts to reduce this.

THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB


The pandemic has also changed what it means to support state workers, with some level of work-from-home likely to continue long term, Thomas said. Her department is currently looking at introducing virtual desktops to allow state employees to remotely and securely access services from any location and via any device, including personal ones, she said.

Thomas’ initial cybersecurity goals also include simply getting a clear assessment of the kinds of software each state agency is using and how — steps that will let her team better detect and address vulnerabilities.

She has been encouraging agencies to carve out space in their budgets for technology adoptions, but said she recognizes that smaller agencies may struggle to invest fully in cyber defenses. GTA intends to step in to assist by providing them with scanning tools.

Tools are not the be all and end all of cybersecurity, either, Thomas said, and her department is working to ensure agencies follow best practices.

“The challenge right now is just making sure all the agencies are equipped with guardrails when it comes to cybersecurity — that they’re following all the plans,” Thomas said. “If you don’t have all the right processes and procedures in place, technology alone won’t help you.”
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.


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