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In Times of Transition, State CIOs Keep IT Priorities Simple

With many governors' elections on the horizon, state chief information officers are focused on ensuring digital services are easy to use and accessible, and communicating support for their workforce.

main conference room at NASCIO Midyear 2022
Government Technology
If you’re reading this, you probably know that it’s an election year. Voters from 36 states will elect governors in a few months. As of this writing, commercials for local contests from where I write in California have just started to creep onto the television airwaves. And depending on your social media platform of choice, you’ve undoubtedly seen campaign activity surface there too. It will only get more exciting from here.

GT did a pretty deep data dive a couple of years ago on state CIOs, dating back to the mid-’90s. Some of the most interesting takeaways had to do with the likelihood that a CIO would keep their job even if there was a change in governor. Administration changes do in fact have a dramatic impact on the CIO. This fact holds even if the party of the new governor is the same as the previous officeholder. Overall, state chief information officers stay in place across an election cycle only 34 percent of the time. In other words, there will be a lot of new state technology leaders when 2023 rolls around.

This feeling of transition was palpable at the recent midyear conference of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) in National Harbor, Md. — an event that drew CIOs from 39 states. One state technology leader offered this perspective: “It’s an election year for us and the priorities change roughly every 22 minutes.” Several others said that with elections and related changes on the horizon, they cannot tell you what their plans will be for the next several years. Instead, they’re focused on the next few months.

But a few themes emerged for IT leaders regardless of the looming election. Having successfully steered their operations to the other side of the pandemic, they are equipped with new energy for fine-tuning government services for their residents. And that’s a priority that transcends any political shifts on the horizon.

Washington, D.C., CTO Lindsey Parker, on a state Q&A panel with a handful of her peers, told those in the audience, “We spent the last two years just grinding.” She was rewarded for her work by an additional title last October to layer on top of her CTO duties: assistant city administrator. Now, she’s turning her attention to broader challenges like making sure every digital service the city offers is operating at its peak.

“How do we really rethink government?” she asked. “How do we make sure that our residents have a clean, crisp, fairer, simpler, faster way of dealing with government?”

Predictably, we also prodded a lot of our interviewees at NASCIO for their takes on things like cyptocurrency, automation, blockchain and other flashy new technologies. Most, though, smartly pointed us back toward the fact that their work starts with a business need. It may be that an “emerging” tool can help solve a problem, but it could be just as likely that using an existing tool in a new way can achieve the same gains.

West Virginia CIO Josh Spence took issue with the concept of the buzzword in emerging tech, which people tend to confuse as the end goal in and of itself. “So it’s not so much that you want to achieve the buzzword or achieve that as the goal; it’s making sure you understand the business outcomes that you’re wanting to leverage that tool for,” he said.

We also heard many times from CIOs that another priority at the forefront of their minds is to support their workforce: Add staff, increase compensation to help communicate the value of their work and give them modern tools to work with.

“People are the most important part,” Wyoming CIO Bill Vajda told GT in a sentiment that was echoed by many. “And if you don’t focus on embracing those great ideas, finding a way to enable them to happen and giving folks the room to run out and do great things, you’re wasting your most critical asset.”
Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle 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.