Vermont CIO Denise Reilly-Hughes has long had a front-row seat for her state’s cloud evolution.

Jan 18 2024

Q&A: Vermont CIO Denise Reilly-Hughes Weighs Citizen Needs During Cloud Journey

The chief of Vermont’s Agency of Digital Services must balance internal and external demands.

In September, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott appointed Denise Reilly-Hughes as secretary of the Agency of Digital Services and state CIO. She was previously deputy secretary for the ADS and became interim CIO in July before her permanent appointment to the position. In October, Reilly-Hughes participated in her first panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), discussing cloud posture and modernization. With 20 years of private sector experience, she has long been involved in Vermont’s cloud journey. StateTech asked her about that experience and where Vermont stands now regarding cloud maturity.

STATETECH: You’ve been working on Vermont government IT issues for quite a long time. Can you tell us a bit about your career so far and how you’ve been helping Vermont?

REILLY-HUGHES: I began my career at a small New Hampshire tech company. In early 2014, I took a technology strategist position with Microsoft. It gave me a chance to dive into this new, innovative space, which was the cloud. For Microsoft, it was Office 365, and my account base was all of the New England states. It was my first immersive opportunity tied to state government and outcomes within government. I developed long-term partnerships with different leadership and business folks within the agencies across the New England states, many of whom I still connect with today.

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Microsoft began building on its customer success model. It was taking the concept of technology use and adoption and turning it into a conversation about customer-driven outcomes, user experience and usability. That resonated with me. It was a way to translate the complexities of technologies into a user experience outcome. If you looked at the landscape, it was something that we were all struggling with.

It uncovered opportunities to help drive change and improve services for the public. I saw that firsthand at Microsoft. Before the pandemic, many states in New England had already adopted a hybrid cloud model, and so the question was how to maintain public services while working remotely.

STATETECH: When it comes to Vermont and its cloud journey, how are you balancing hybrid cloud?

REILLY-HUGHES: Now that you are using cloud technologies, how do you maximize that to keep information and data and people and identities secure while at the same time making service more available?

We have two priorities for the state of Vermont: One is internal operations, and the other is the supportability and the modernization of the state enterprise. At the state level, we have a number of ongoing modernization projects. We have very strong partnerships with our state agencies, and we work together to align these priorities to the benefits of Vermonters. We are reforming unemployment insurance; we have a new DMV system going live. We are digitizing our services while at the same time providing the level of service that residents have always expected when they need to come into an office.

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And within our priorities when it comes to hybrid, we continue to harden our cyber footprint. As we expand into the cloud, that becomes a deeper conversation, along with what touch that footprint. When we look holistically at security controls, we look at data privacy and artificial intelligence. AI is a partner in that conversation, along with cybersecurity. As we look at the cloud journey that we are on, it is critically important to Vermont’s success to look at the maturity we have achieved right now and where we need to go for the next phase in the journey.

Vermont is a small state, and we have a strong, supportive team working to make that happen. On the internal side, we are hitting the next phase of maturity as an organization itself. We are only six years young now, and we have spent those first six years in what I would call startup mode. And we are doing a lot and covering a lot and meeting the statutory obligations of the agency. How do you define the next phase? We define that as our operation maturity phase, which aligns very closely to where we are in our cloud journey as well. We are resetting and maturing our baseline standards around core enterprise services. As we add layers of technology, it becomes easier to pull AI into that conversation.

Denise Reilly-Hughes
It uncovered opportunities to help drive change and improve services for the public.”

Denise Reilly-Hughes CIO, Vermont

STATETECH: Can you explain where Vermont is on producing a better citizen experience? Many states, for example, are planning or introducing uniform identity and access management platforms.

REILLY-HUGHES: We take an approach where we consider and acknowledge that we still do have legacy technologies that won’t necessarily align to where we are going. We need to provide an experience for Vermonters that is consistent enough while driving to a single experience. We are working toward that. We are where we want to be right now in our maturity journey. We are making methodical decisions alongside our partner agencies in government to ensure that we are doing the right thing while not changing too fast and making unintended mistakes along the way. Going back to our cloud journey, we are very concerned about the privacy and security of Vermonters’ information and access to that information. It is critically important to get this right.

Introducing AI into the Vermonter experience conversation creates a level of complexity that must be considered before we go live. Everyone feels like they want to be further along than they are, and we want to be where Vermonters need us to be.

STATETECH: Given that Vermont is a small state, do you talk at all to your state government neighbors about technology issues?

REILLY-HUGHES: We do. The New England states are very well connected. New York has a new CIO on board, and we already have had a chance to meet. Organizations like NASCIO also help to create some alignment, especially where there can be turnover. I feel fortunate that I’ve had a chance to work with government IT leaders for quite some time. We try to mirror each other’s successes where we can and support each other’s journeys as peers.

Photography by Oliver Parini

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