A panoramic of the Vermont State House on State Street in Montpelier, Vermont.

May 26 2021

NASCIO Midyear 2021: Vermont CIO Quinn Leverages Trust into Support for IT Modernization

The state legislature recently approved $66 million in funding for technology upgrades to legacy systems.

Tucked inside Vermont’s $7.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2022 is $66 million for technology upgrades. That funding was hard-won by Vermont CIO John Quinn and came after years of persistent work in building up trust with state agencies and the legislature.

Although the state’s lawmakers did not give Quinn and Gov. Phil Scott the recurring IT modernization fund they had requested earlier this year — something Quinn says he is still going to push for in the next legislative session — they did approve funding for critical IT upgrades.

Quinn, speaking Wednesday at the virtual midyear conference of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, said that the funding covers 16 key projects. Those include modernizing the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles system and its unemployment insurance system, both of which run on 40-year-old mainframes. Two other projects will also involve moving off of decades-old technology, he said.

The state’s goal, Quinn said, is to be “citizen-centric” and “really pushing digital government all of the way.”

Building a New IT Culture in Vermont

Four years ago, Scott consolidated the state’s disparate IT fiefdoms into a centralized agency, the Agency of Digital Services, or ADS.

At the time, Quinn said, it was unclear how many applications the state was running and who even counted as an IT staff member, given some of the employees’ wonky titles.

To build credibility, Quinn said, he spent every day of the state’s legislative sessions for two years talking with lawmakers about both the good things that the state was doing and where the state was falling short on IT. Being transparent as key to building trust, Quinn said. “That relationship building has given us not only credibility in the legislature but with partner agencies across state government,” he said.

When ADS was set up, each executive agency in Vermont had its own CIO. Those IT leaders remained in place but started to report to Quinn. “Those agencies had a trusted adviser that I had control over,” he said, adding that it did take a while to get aligned on goals.

Now, when IT projects are created, Quinn brings in all of the relevant IT staff upfront to explain the vision and why the state is doing something.

Vermont has developed a process for IT modernization in which each agency comes up with its top three IT goals, according to Quinn. Then the governor’s cabinet and Quinn’s office go through them to discuss their value and potential return on investment, as well as whether they align with ADS’ strategic goals and the governor’s overarching goals. Then, the governor goes through them and determines how much funding each priority should get.

The state at this point is focused on launching modern digital government services, Quinn said, and “bringing those services to the citizens that need them and want them.”

The past year’s coronavirus pandemic has been a “perfect example of showing our value across Vermont,” Quinn says, with a fivefold increase in online interactions with residents. “It proved to everyone across every agency that these applications in digital government are needed and wanted by Vermonters.”

ADS has been working to get other state agencies used to agile development and procurement. ADS has helped roll out scalable services for agencies, including point-of-sale systems, as well as customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning systems.

Digital Services, Cloud to Lead the Way in Vermont

The state is focused on building a digital environment that supports concepts like integrated eligibility across government services, Quinn said. The state is also looking to cut down on the number of paper-based services it offers.

During the pandemic, the state rolled out applications that show the value of going digital, Quinn said. One was an online application for Medicaid that cut the wait time for enrollment from an average of 120 days down to 20.

The state created more than 30 apps during the pandemic to meet grant program or unemployment insurance needs and other government functions, Quinn said. Having established relationships with “preferred platforms” from vendor partners helped significantly, Quinn said. “It gave us a rocket boost way ahead of where we should have been as far as our strategic plan in modernization.”

Quinn said the cloud is “absolutely” a critical part of the state’s modernization vision.

“We want to make sure that we’re putting ourselves in a position to be successful,” he said. “And with the size of our IT staff and the skill sets here in Vermont, it’s in our best interest to be in the cloud as much as possible.” The state wants to get out of the data center business as much as possible and retrain staff to focus on other IT skills.

“We want to become experts at maintaining the applications,” he says.

Check out more coverage from the NASCIO 2021 Midyear Conference and follow us on Twitter at @StateTech, or the official conference Twitter account, @NASCIO, and join the conversation using the hashtag #NASCIO21.

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