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N. Dakota CIO Shawn Riley Reflects on State Service, Road Ahead

As Shawn Riley nears the end of his time as North Dakota’s CIO, he shared the positive advances the state has made in the technology space, while hoping to making an even bigger impact from the private sector.

Shawn Riley.
David Kidd
Last week, North Dakota CIO Shawn Riley announced that he would be leaving state service to start a new role in the private sector. He shared some of his final thoughts about where state IT stands ahead of his Dec. 2 departure.

Over the course of the nearly six years since Riley was appointed to the position, the state has made major advances in the IT space. In looking at these advances, Riley credits the innovative team that he has worked with.

“This team has reset the stereotype of the government worker,” he said.

Reflecting on the highlights of his career accomplishments, he pointed to the creation of the computer science and cybersecurity standards, which have enhanced the state’s education for the long term by emphasizing the need for skills for the digital age. These standards were integrated in schools across the state in under a year.

He also underlines the task of shifting the entire executive branch of state government to enable working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic — an accomplishment achieved in under 48 hours — and many of those state workers are still working from home today after finding themselves achieving increased productivity.

Riley emphasized the value of the whole-of-government defense approach, where the seven branches of government (executive branch, judicial branch, legislative branch, higher education, K-12 education, cities and counties) work together to accomplish large-scale projects.

For some of these major undertakings, there were those individuals who were resistant to change, or those who thought that the initiatives were too grandiose and could not be done. Implementing new technologies is often the easy part, he said. It’s navigating the people and processes that is the hard part. With every one of the state’s major projects — from the cloud transitions to digital innovation to a new data platform — there was always pushback of some kind.

But in order to overcome challenges, Riley said, it comes down to one thing: will. And the will to get something done can help bring together people from differing political ideologies, from different sectors and with different expertise to solve problems.

And to convince people that new initiatives or projects are worth doing, a big part of that is helping people understand any project’s goals in a tangible way. Having a concrete goal allows people to take the steps necessary to move forward, which ultimately will lead to a greater impact for the people an entity serves.

He believes that government in North Dakota is in a unique position in that the state has one of the largest governments per capita, but he also underlines the existence of a uniform belief in working to better serve the people of the state.

Riley advises that the next CIO of the state be willing to try new things. “Be visionary … Believe you can and try.”

This visionary ideology will guide Riley in his next role, which will be serving as the new CEO of American operations with Bitzero International, a cryptocurrency company.

His reasoning for the shift to the private sector, as he explained it, was all about the potential for greater impact. His belief is that in this new role, he will be able to have a significant impact in shaping the future of the planet in the spaces of climate change, food, carbon recycling and more.

But even as he joins the private sector, he is not closing the door on public-sector work, he said. Riley’s hope is that he will stay connected to projects that he has been working on, such as the Main Street Initiative, as well as some behavioral health initiatives and workforce task forces.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.