Nebraska CIO Ed Toner explains how the Cornhusker State has pivoted to telework in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

May 04 2020

Q&A: Nebraska CIO Ed Toner on the Importance of Continuity of Operations

The state shifted to remote work in phases and has focused on maintaining critical government services.

Many state governments have had to overcome challenges related to legacy technology, move government meetings online and help thousands of government workers telework on the fly in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Nebraska CIO Ed Toner has led the Cornhusker State through all of that and more. Toner, who has been in his current role since 2015, has seen the vast majority of the state workforce go to remote work environments over the past month and a half. However, Toner contends, the state was methodical about how it has done so and has not seen any interruptions in services. 

As part of StateTech’s coverage of the virtual NASCIO Midyear 2020 Conference, held online due to the pandemic, we are speaking with state CIOs about how they have managed the transition to telework and how they will evolve their approach to IT service delivery moving forward. 

Toner spoke at length about Nebraska’s approach to the crisis and why he thinks the state has been well-positioned to support a remote workforce.

STATETECH: How has Nebraska approached telework and having government workers stay at home? 

TONER: We never really had a work-at-home order. Nebraska did an orderly, phased approach. Of course, right when the epidemic came out, we encouraged anyone that was in those vulnerable categories to work from home. So, that was phase one. We did more of a Midwestern, common-sense approach. Then phase two was to go ahead and have more people go work at home, which was about 25 percent. And how we did that was the criticality of whether we needed them at work or whether they could have just as easily worked at home. In our office, it was the developers and the support folks for the servers and databases and things of that sort. 

That was in early, early April. Then, we ended up with another 25 percent going remote probably weekly after that. So, by mid-April, we really had probably 90 percent of our workforce working from home. 

It depended really on the agency. There were some agencies that could more easily work at home, but we didn’t have this mass exodus. If we were going to do this again, this is exactly how we would do it. Get those that are at a higher risk home and make sure that they are functional. And do it in waves versus everyone rushing home. 

STATETECH: You have had a continuity of operations plan in place — with a COOP scorecard for different agencies — for a while, for a variety of different contingencies. How did you put that into effect when these waves were going on?

TONER: The fact that we had one in place was a huge asset. We knew which agencies were going to need a little extra help. From their scores, I could tell whether or not they were able to work from home or they needed a location to work from. And we made sure that we did everything we could to help those folks out. Now, one of the things that I think we did right was that we did not increase our network capacity. We did not increase our VPN server capacity. We didn’t have to increase the number of multifactor authentications. We had enough for the entire state. So, we were well-prepared. We didn’t rush out and buy anything. We didn’t go out and add servers to anything. We were well-designed. 

We took something from my private sector days: Like during my time at First Data, we knew that we had to have no interruption of service with the pandemic. We needed to make sure we were available 100 percent of the time, and we were. We knew we had capacity, we knew we had everything working and working well. We were one of the few states where our unemployment system did not get overloaded.

In Nebraska, we did a hard freeze on changes because that’s where you’re going to have problems. If you introduce a change, 99.9 percent of your problems come from software changes. We didn’t do any software changes. We didn’t push any new code into production — and we still haven’t, we’re still under that lockdown now. What we did was patching and things like that. But we did freeze all noncritical upgrades to make sure that we did not have a single interruption of service. We haven’t had a single interruption of service, not a single failure anywhere.

STATETECH: For agencies that didn’t really have a history of doing work from home, what were the big things that you had to help them work through?

TONER: A lot of it was just that they had never, ever connected via VPN. They’d never done multifactor authentication. We made the tools available where they could go to a software center and download them before they left the office. 

I think one thing I would have done is said, “OK, before you actually vacate the office, go home, try it out at night and then tell us what kind of problems you had at home.” 

Many of them didn’t bother to ever log in to the VPN and do a multifactor authentication until they got home for good. So, we had to do troubleshooting from their home offices, and that made it a little bit tougher. But the team did a good job of that and got everyone working. Our office has always had laptops as our primary devices; I think that probably I won’t have to mandate it. I think the agencies realized the importance of having more mobile workstations. So that probably will become more common. Many of the agencies had already gone in that direction, but some of them, I think, are probably encouraged to go in that direction a little bit more after this. 

We were lucky. We received a lot of laptops early and we were able to distribute out 250 of them a day. We are a centralized IT operation, which makes it very easy for us. We have one standard image, so we can image and distribute PCs pretty quickly.

STATETECH: What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you in all of this? 

TONER: I would say getting agencies more comfortable with working from home. And that includes logging in from their computers and using the VPN and things of that sort. But the other thing was that we had to redirect all of our call center work from a typical call center in a large building, with people sitting at their desks, to redirecting the IVR [interactive voice response] to their phones at home so that it looked like they were together. The voice team did an incredible job of going in, with the help of our vendors, to redirect the call center calls very seamlessly to a distributed workforce that was working from home. 

Those were the two biggest things: getting the technology that was available to people and getting people used to it and using it correctly. Again, I think because we phased everything that it made the transition much smoother for us.

STATETECH: Is there anything else that you think is going to change long-term as a result of having gone this route?

TONER: There’s a central hub, just like in any state. I’m right across from the front of the Capitol. So, it’s very easy for me to walk over there. But the departments of Transportation, Corrections and Health and Human Services are a little bit farther away. I think in the past, at least here in Nebraska, when you called a meeting, you kind of did everything in person, and so you lost 15 minutes walking between offices. 

I think we’re going to do more of what I did in private industry, which is that I seldom had in-person meetings. And I think the states can start realizing some of the advantages of videoconferencing. I think the state has now gotten a taste of how easy it is to communicate through a videoconference, and I think we’re going to find a good balance there. It will become more common in general. And in the past, you could never find a conference room. If we did more of these videoconferences, we wouldn’t have to worry about conference rooms and things of that sort.

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.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY COLIN CONCES