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When Does Government Need IT's Input? Early and Often

The pandemic laid bare the integral part technology plays in today's government, and chief information officers are now getting a seat at the table at the beginning of the process to modernize and implement new systems.

Indiana Chief Information Officer Tracy Barnes
Indiana Chief Information Officer Tracy Barnes
Government Technology/David Kidd
You’ve heard the claim, harder than ever to refute, that every company is a technology company. The government equivalent of that is that every agency is a technology agency. No group’s work can be accomplished without technology underpinning it. Even the field work of people in parks and recreation, law enforcement, public works and so many others is organized and managed by tech platforms to keep track of schedules, call volume, inventory and general efficiency.

And all of that was the case prior to the pandemic. But the crisis and its lingering aftermath that includes a much heavier emphasis on digital government has underscored how central functional technology is to a well-run government enterprise. Many technology leaders had the ear of policymakers in their jurisdiction pre-COVID, but many more do now. And similarly, many IT shops worked closely alongside organizational business leaders to consider and eventually deploy solutions to meet business needs. But the pandemic cemented these collaborations in new ways.

It has also accelerated project timelines. Indeed, IT has advanced at a fevered pitch in the past two years, and technology teams have risen to the occasion and settled into this new status quo. State CIOs gathered at the annual National Association of State Chief Information Officers conference in October said as much.

“Even though we’ve got this huge amount of demand, we’re running at an extremely fast pace, everybody’s running to the fire. I think we’ve all settled into it and it’s almost made us a little bit more focused on what we need to get done and everybody feels the urgency,” said Illinois Acting Secretary and CIO Jennifer Ricker.

Her colleagues added that pandemic-era demands have challenged traditional government procurement models, as well as emphasized resource constraints, especially human resources. But their ability to deliver under extraordinarily challenging circumstances has led to some positive changes too.

Indiana CIO Tracy Barnes made the point that IT is now involved earlier in conversations about new and changing business needs that technology can help address, and stays engaged throughout the process. Barnes says this gives IT a more enterprise view, enabling them to better support the needs of the entire organization.

“Our team and our agency has been a lot more engaged and involved in the early conversations, and mapping from an enterprise perspective,” said Barnes, “and then really making sure that we can put some standards in place that support the ability to maintain and manage these solutions long term.”

Pointing out the security advantages of having a clearer big-picture view, Barnes understandably hopes this shift is a permanent one.

Structural changes ushering in similar benefits have taken place this year in West Virginia. While Joshua Spence now has an updated title — CIO as opposed to CTO — the legislative change also brought about a new model in the state, in which Spence’s office gained new authority with respect to how executive agencies use technology. Both central IT and agencies can now bring their strengths to bear to better serve citizens.

“Ultimately, we want to give the agencies a platform to build on and allow them to really focus on how they’re using the tech to bring benefit and not so much on how the tech is delivered,” Spence said.

These are good examples of a role for the IT office that’s continuing to evolve. The additional engagement, responsibility and authority are moves in the right direction.

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Noelle Knell has been the editor of Government Technology magazine for e.Republic since 2015. She has more than two decades of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she 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. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.