May 04 2020

NASCIO Midyear 2020: The Importance of the CIO’s Role Comes to the Fore Amid Crisis

Tennessee, Massachusetts and Washington State adapt to a fluid IT environment.

For Tennessee CIO Stephanie Dedmon, the past month has been anything but business as usual. 

“Almost every day, something new is needed,” she said during the opening webcast of the virtual NASCIO Midyear 2020 Conference, held online due to the coronavirus pandemic. “That might be a slight exaggeration. But the thing we have tried to do is to share with our agencies and our teams, just have a can-do attitude.” 

The goal of her office is to be seen as an enabler and a problem-solver for other state agencies, she said. 

During the webcast, state CIOs explained how they have shifted their own offices and other state agencies to remote work setups. They also described how governors and other state cabinet officials have come to realize how important state CIOs are to maintaining business continuity and uninterrupted delivery of government services, and why they need to be part of the conversation with state leaders. 

Massachusetts CIO Curtis Wood said he and his team have tried to help state agencies focus on what data and applications they need access to and what their priorities are, and less on the technology needed to accomplish that. 

“What do you need to get done?” he said during the webcast. “Then we can build a technology platform around it.” The pandemic and stay-at-home orders from governors has proved, Wood said, that “we all need a seat at the table.” 

MORE FROM STATETECH: Discover how state and local agencies can take government meetings online. 

How States Pivoted to Telework Environments

Tennessee’s state government has had a formal work-from-home policy in place for the past six or seven years, Dedmon said. Before the pandemic, about 30 percent of the workforce took advantage of it, though not full time. 

With the onset of the pandemic and the governor’s encouragement, the state quickly moved to “deploy all the tech we needed to up our game,” Dedmon said. Now, 54 percent of the state workforce is working from home full time. 

Tennessee purchased 2,200 laptops via emergency procurements “to equip the additional workforce that wasn’t capable of working from home,” Dedmon said. The state runs on Cisco’s WebEx and Jabber platforms and has been providing users with support for those, she added. 

In Massachusetts, the state is in the process of shifting to a Microsoft 365 environment, according to Wood, with a single device for each user. Right before the pandemic hit in mid-March, the commonwealth’s human resources department had just published a new policy on telework, Wood said. Executive agencies were a little reluctant to adopt it, due to a history of preferring to provide direct services to residents, but now they are more enthusiastic about it. 

Prior to the pandemic, the state had about 1,000 employees working from home on any given day. The state was able to procure 7,200 laptops in four to five weeks for state employees and now has 20,000 employees working from home. Roughly 85 to 90 percent of all back-office workers are working remotely, Wood said. 

That shift was not without its challenges, and Massachusetts had to ramp up its VPN infrastructure and capacity. The state focused on essential services but has been pleasantly surprised a how successful it has been in setting up remote desktop infrastructure, Wood said. 

How States Can Craft a New Kind of IT Response

The pandemic has given leaders in Massachusetts a “tremendous opportunity” to rethink how business gets done in state government, Wood said. 

The shift has focused on service availability, accessibility and resilience as opposed to where it sits, whether in a data center or the cloud, he said, focusing more on users being able to access state services so that they can continue to be delivered to residents. 

Tennessee has a centralized IT structure; most executive branch agencies’ IT teams are part of Dedmon’s office. That has allowed the state to be nimbler in its response. Jim Weaver, CIO for Washington state, said that one of his biggest challenges was stopping agencies form purchasing software that did not fit with the state’s IT plan. Washington has been moving to Microsoft Teams, but some agencies went out and got licenses for Zoom, which caused frustration because it would take as much time to set up Zoom as it would Teams, Weaver noted. 

However, Weaver said, despite hiccups like that, state agencies have worked together in a collaborative fashion as a “cohesive unit.” 

Dedmon said she thinks Tennessee may never go back to having its employees work from the office five days a week, even after the pandemic is under control. It will just be more incumbent on users to stay in touch with peers, managers and state leaders, she said. 

Wood said Massachusetts wants to encourage more telework in general to ease congestion around Boston and cut down on carbon emissions. As for the state workforce, more management will be needed to track productivity and maintain accountability, he said. 

Dedmon said her role will continue to evolve to be more of a service broker and customer relationship manager. She participates in several daily calls with other state leaders and stays attuned for opportunities to provide technology solutions to problems that have cropped up. Usually, that involves providing several options, often from third-party vendors, she said. Given the nature of the pandemic, she said, “it’s imperative that we have a seat at the table.” 

Check out this page for more coverage from the NASCIO Midyear 2020 conference, and follow us on Twitter at @StateTech, or the official conference Twitter account, @NASCIO,  and join the conversation using the hashtag #NASCIO20.

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