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Vermont IT Modernization Takes a Relationship-First Focus

Vermont is revamping legacy IT systems, some of which are 50 years old, while also exploring uses for new technologies, including artificial intelligence.

Denise Reilly-Hughes head and shoulder shot. She's professionally dressed and wearing glasses with a playful cow-splotch pattern. She's looking at the camera and smiling.
Denise Reilly-Hughes
Government Technology/David Kidd
Modernization is high on Vermont CIO Denise Reilly-Hughes’ IT agenda, and at the same time, she's hoping to use tackling aging systems as a chance to check-in with customer agencies.

Reilly-Hughes became permanent CIO in September after holding the role for two months in an interim capacity. She’s been joined, too, by a new deputy secretary who brings a particularly helpful perspective, having come from one of the Agency of Digital Services’ customer agencies. Reilly-Hughes said her predecessors set the foundation for the state’s ongoing IT modernization efforts, and now she's driving that work forward, all while promoting four key goals.

First, she wants to ensure tech decisions are made with end users’ experience in mind. Second and third, she aims to enhance standards and drive predictability, ensuring partners know what to expect in terms of financial costs and service capabilities. Finally, Reilly-Hughes has sights set on “simplifying and reducing complexities.” As she works to tackle technical debt and update legacy systems, she also looks to ensure the technology is simple, aligning with business process improvement goals.

Some of Vermont’s systems are 50 years old. Others may be two decades old, but were built in ways that no longer operate as the state needs. To guide broader modernization priorities, the state is creating a risk scorecard. The scorecard lists all the state’s technical assets alongside relevant details to help identify those posing the greatest security risks.

With the scorecard effort, the state is looking collectively at its assets, devices, network and systems, Reilly-Hughes said. Unemployment insurance, for example, is one of the more than 50-year-old systems, and updating it will need to be done carefully to ensure access remains uninterrupted.

“We can't afford to have the new system not in place and the current system nonfunctional,” Reilly-Hughes said.

The old system will likely need to be maintained for a few years, as the state readies for the switch. Ensuring a smooth transition requires careful change management, including training the workforce for the new system.

The state is also midway through a DMV modernization. It’s moving away from many paper-based processes and launching a digital self-serve option for getting or renewing drivers' licenses. Phase two is upcoming and will do the same for registrations.

Modernizations are also essential to keep everything running as Vermont confronts a shrinking working-age population. Adopting more automations, as well as upskilling employees, will be important to compensating for vacancies and lower staffing levels.

The state is thinking about automation in other ways, too. Vermont is considering several pilot programs that use AI, primarily aimed at improving access to information and services.

Reilly-Hughes said that opportunities to use AI “appear to be endless,” but that guidelines first need to be established to ensure data privacy and security. Helping with AI efforts is the state’s director of AI — “the first director of AI of any U.S. state,” Reilly-Hughes noted — and the Council on AI, a roughly year-old entity supporting responsible state use of the technology.

Another council also looks to help keep residents safe: On Jan. 24, Vermont convened the first meeting of its Cybersecurity Advisory Council and submitted a report to the Legislature. That council sees the state come together with businesses that provide critical services, as well as to review cybersecurity standards, among other responsibilities. The recording of the meeting will soon be uploaded to YouTube.

Finally, 2024 also brings a gubernatorial election year to Vermont, with few candidates yet declared. Reilly-Hughes said her office remains “laser focused” on its current goals, and that she’s hopeful IT priorities will remain unchanged regardless of election outcomes.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a senior 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.