The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg

Dec 17 2020

5 State and Local Government IT Trends to Watch in 2021

Modernization, expanding digital services and improving access to broadband will be high on IT leaders’ agendas next year.

As in almost every sector, 2020 proved to be an unprecedented year for state and local governments, which were often on the front lines of combating the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting fallout on the economy, public health and government services.

State and local government budgets have been battered by falling tax revenues and they face a daunting 2021, when they will be asked to do more with less. However, there are clear avenues for innovation and opportunities for IT leaders to take the lessons they learned from 2020 into next year, experts and industry analysts say.

The modernization of legacy IT systems will likely get a jolt, as will the push into digital services, which the pandemic accelerated. IT leaders at various levels of government have underscored the importance of expanding access to broadband and making it a utility. These are some of the key IT trends in state and local government to watch in 2021.

1. Modernization of Legacy IT Will Get a Boost

The pandemic exposed many state governments’ legacy IT systems, which are still used to manage critical systems such as the distribution of unemployment insurance. States had to move these systems to the cloud on the fly in the spring amid a crush of claims, and such migrations are ongoing.

“While the pandemic brought these issues to light, many of these states’ legacy systems were problems waiting to happen,” Brandon Edenfield, the managing director of app modernization at Modern Systems, an Advanced company, writes in StateTech. “It is vital that all states find solutions to these challenges before the next disruption knocks their systems offline when they’re needed most.”

Most often, Edenfield says, government agencies will choose to rehost applications, conduct automated refactoring, rewrite legacy applications or replace an entire system.

“Many policymakers at the state level had no idea what this even meant until this year,” says Meredith Ward, director of policy and research for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, referring to legacy modernization. “While states won’t be able to fund every modernization effort, the issue is likely to get more attention in 2021.”

NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson tells StateScoop he was surprised that legacy modernization dropped off the organization’s list of top 10 state CIO priorities for 2021, after being ranked seventh in the 2020 edition of the list.

“Another challenge that was clearly exposed was the fragility of the legacy environment and a lack of scalability from the states,” he says. “I made an assumption that legacy would be on the list.”

Edenfield notes that the right approach to modernization will vary from state to state, “so it’s important that state IT leaders look inward to determine the strategy that best fits their needs.”

“Even though these strategies can take significant time and financial investment to complete, the payoff is leagues better than continuing to build upon aging technologies and systems that are essentially held together by duct tape — and run the risk of crashing altogether,” he adds.

LEARN MORE: How have counties modernized the tech they use to provide public benefits?

2. The Shift to Digital Government Will Accelerate

The pandemic highlighted not only the multitude of services that citizens rely on government to deliver but also the fact that, when offices are closed or people are discouraged from being in close proximity to one another, those services still need to run.

That led to a significant shift to digital services, as state and local governments have enabled digital signatures for documents and for driver’s license renewals, among many other applications. Experts say that trend is likely to accelerate in 2021.

Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, says there is even more of a citizen-centric focus in government service delivery than normal. He also expects that “digital infrastructure will replace physical infrastructure.”

“Now, as never before, there is a recognition that we wouldn’t be operating the way we are today without recognizing the importance and significance of digital infrastructure,” he says.

That extends from the complex down to basic government services, Shawn McCarthy, IDC’s research director for government infrastructure and systems optimization strategies, says. “Being able to support online connections for education, town meetings, etc. will be important for small to midsize towns. Some already do this well. Some are laggards.”

Many citizens interacted with their state government online for the first time this year, Ward notes.

“The increased demand and necessity for socially distant service delivery did two things,” Ward says. “First, it showed that many services that haven’t traditionally been offered online can be, and largely successfully. It also shed light on the importance of expanded online digital services, especially for those who couldn’t travel to a state office because it was closed or had a hard time doing so even pre-pandemic. Expanded digital government is here to stay.”

3. Expanded Access to Broadband Will Become an Imperative

The pandemic also put into stark relief how critical access to high-speed affordable broadband is in so many communities across the country. It’s needed for remote work and school and is seen by state and city leaders as a necessary ingredient for economic recovery.

Smart city leaders across the country say that expanding broadband access is at the center of their agendas. Aurora, Ill., CIO Michael Pegues notes that the city already has 120 miles of fiber-optic cable in the ground but wants to expand that to 645 miles. That will help close the digital divide in the city and attract business investment, according to Pegues.

“We need to start looking at fiber connectivity and broadband accessibility the same way we look at gas, water and electricity — and then you’ve got fiber as a fourth utility,” he says.

NASCIO places it fourth on its IT priority list, shooting up five spots from last year, according to StateScoop. Expanding broadband encompasses strengthening statewide connectivity, implementing rural broadband expansion and embarking on 5G deployments, according to the NASCIO list.

“Broadband access and affordability became a huge area of emphasis this year due to the dramatic shift to remote work and remote learning. Expanding broadband access will be a big issue in 2021,” Ward says.

EXPLORE: How can tech-fluent leaders make the case for investment?

4. RPA, Chatbots Will Dominate Emerging Tech Discussion

The emerging technologies that states embraced this year to respond to huge demands, including robotic process automation and chatbots to answer citizen queries, will likely see more investment in 2021.

That’s despite the fact that many states will see their IT budgets shrink. “Some of those that are innovative, and creating a huge ROI or making it easier for the citizens to interact with the state, those things still have a lot of momentum behind them,” Utah CIO Mike Hussey tells StateTech.

Hussey notes that chatbots were a technology the state had been eyeing, but the pandemic spurred Utah to roll them out to answer questions related to unemployment claims.

“The use of chatbots exploded in state government this year to respond to the pandemic, and those chatbots (in at least 75% of states) are here to stay,” says Amy Hille Glasscock, a senior policy analyst at NASCIO. “IT offices will be expanding their chatbots to additional state websites, making them more sophisticated and including them in their service offerings to agencies. States will also be looking at using emerging technologies for fraud detection, cybersecurity and citizen-facing digital services.”

The rollout of chatbots and virtual assistants “was rather rushed in 2020 for obvious reasons,” Glasscock says, adding that in 2021 there “will be a returned focus on putting the governance of emerging technology ahead of deployment.”

Shark says that RPA will also likely increase in local governments by necessity as agencies are asked to do more with less and potentially cut staff. Automating workloads and processes can help states control costs.

Any process that is business rule-driven, occurs in high volume and is repeatable would be well suited for state and local governments. RPA can be used for tasks carried out by human resources, financial services and procurement.

Shark says that he thinks mayors are pushing for RPA deployments. “They see they will be facing big budget cuts,” he says, “and they’re asking, ‘How do I continue providing services?’”

5. Zero-Trust Security Will Look More Attractive

With many government users working remotely, some for the foreseeable future, securing remote users’ endpoints is critical. Cybersecurity and risk management is the No. 1 priority on NASCIO’s top 10 list.

One way that agencies may try to keep remote workers and their networks secure is through adopting zero-trust cybersecurity principles. Zero trust represents a mindset shift in cybersecurity in which every transaction is verified before access is granted to users and devices.

“With current state-sponsored international hacking efforts, we are clearly headed for zero trust for most connections,” McCarthy says. “But agencies also need better security software and tools. They need better visibility into all types of devices and packet traffic and they need to be able to see where hackers manage to gain entrance into a network and where they go.”

Ward notes that, as NASCIO stated in the 2020 Deloitte-NASCIO Cybersecurity Study, COVID-19 amplified everything: “the pandemic forced state governments to act quickly in response to public health and safety concerns, in many cases taking the lead to protect their citizens from the spread of the virus.”

This will hold true in 2021, Ward says “especially in the first quarter and the vaccine rollout to our most vulnerable populations. We have already seen misinformation and disinformation campaigns surrounding the vaccine rollout as well as fraud — bad actors never let a crisis go to waste and will exploit a sensitive situation for their own benefit.”

Ward notes that some major cities have recently rolled out zero-trust frameworks, and she expects “states to follow suit where possible. The state cybersecurity landscape is constantly changing and evolving and continues to be a No. 1 priority for our state CIOs and CISOs.”

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