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South Dakota IT Looks Ahead, Prioritizing the Citizen Experience

As the state of South Dakota works to transform outdated IT systems, enhance cybersecurity and explore emerging technologies, state IT leadership is keeping the citizens’ experience at the heart of these efforts.

South Dakota state capitol at dusk
As commissioner of South Dakota’s Bureau of Information and Telecommunications, Jeffrey Clines has overseen some major state IT transformations since his February 2020 appointment to the role.

He took the reins from Heather Perry, who had served as interim commissioner since 2019.

Having come into the role at such a pivotal time for state government amid the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a roller coaster, Clines explained, but the experience offered a lot of valuable lessons from a technology perspective. One of the lessons came in the form of shifting to support a virtual workforce practically overnight — not to mention the broader organizational shifts that would enable tech leadership in the state to prioritize the experience of digital services.

A major example of the state’s focus in this space is the South Dakota Citizen Portal, Clines credits Gov. Kristi Noem’s vision for the launch of this portal. Noem recognized the challenges that existed for citizens in having to log in to multiple places to access multiple government services and pushed to give constituents a centralized, adaptable platform. The state plans to continue integrating additional systems and processes within the platform in the year ahead.

Like many states, South Dakota is working to understand and mitigate the risks of AI while leveraging its benefits to improve the citizen experience. A key application thus far for the state is an AI chatbot within the citizen portal. When asking a question within the portal’s chatbot, it identifies itself as a machine learning model.

“And we’ve found it to be much more accurate and much more responsive to a citizen’s inquiry,” Clines said, noting that it offers much more detailed responses than legacy chatbot models. Clines also added that while positive feedback about this tool has been received, the state is working to continually improve it.

The question of how to best regulate AI continues to push states to implement their own policies. South Dakota, too, is exploring this issue.

“It’s not something we want people to shy away from,” Clines said. While AI has been around for decades, the GenAI evolution in the past year has marked a “massive awakening” as people have come to understand the technology’s potential impact, he explained. “And it’s been fascinating to see the government sector react to that.”

At this point, the state has released guidelines for acceptable state use of generative AI. In addition, Clines said that informal workgroups across state agencies are diving deeper into understanding how AI can help improve various processes. Because this space is rapidly evolving, the state has delayed implementation of an official policy to ensure that any policy that is created meets the existing needs. The current guidance was primarily designed to ensure that state government use of GenAI tools is intentional, transparent and safe.

The rise of GenAI has also prompted the public sector to increase its focus on cybersecurity. “I think there’s a correlation between the two,” he said.

While AI can be leveraged for good, bad actors can also use these tools. He offered the example of bad actors writing increasingly convincing phishing emails; GenAI can eliminate grammatical errors that may have previously helped to identify those emails.

Within the last year, Clines said cybersecurity work has been a major investment and accomplishment for the state. Part of this is due to Noem’s investment in this area, allowing South Dakota to grow its full-time equivalent staff to address security challenges — both existing and forthcoming. The state has also set up a governance, risk, and compliance team.

“We have to pay attention to these risks — to state governments, to business processes, to critical infrastructure and the like,” Clines said.

And while cybersecurity and AI tend to be the center of many public-sector tech conversations, Clines also underlined the work the state is doing behind the scenes to make state government better.

For example, BIT supports the state radio system, which is essential in supporting emergency response teams. Clines highlighted that BIT just completed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project to upgrade the emergency radio system to the P25 standard.

The state’s work also includes a multiyear effort to implement a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system statewide, overhauling the current statewide financial system that was developed in the 1980s. The project was formally launched last year, and the state is currently in the RFP cycle and selecting a vendor. Implementation is expected to start in 2024, with the goal of going live by 2026, which Clines said will be a “tremendous impact” to the state.

Another major project that is just getting started is launching a new motor vehicle licensing system, which is currently slated to launch in early 2025.

As these long-term projects get underway, the state will continue to invest in improving cybersecurity and citizen services.

“Given what I know now, after four years of being here, I think our technology [and] our processes … are going to be just as good as any other state out there — if not better,” Clines said.

Editor's Note: This story has been been corrected from a previous version indicating that South Dakota CTO Pat Snow left that state in 2019.
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.