Government Tech Innovation Thrives in Time of Crisis

By Adam Stone

For state and local IT professionals COVID-19 has changed everything. Work-from-home impacts workforce management. Social disruption sparks cyberthreats. Looming budget cuts come at a time when investment is needed in new cognitive applications.

At the virtual IBM Think Gov event on Wednesday, industry joined with federal, state and local IT leaders to review the rapidly changing landscape.

“Obviously it’s been a very, very difficult time for all of us,” said Jay Bellissimo, general manager of the U.S. Public and Federal Market for IBM. “The pandemic has proved challenging, disruptive and impactful in unprecedented ways, leading all of us to think differently, to execute with urgency and truly reimagine how the government of today and tomorrow should work.”

Illinois State CIO Ron Guerrier said COVID has accelerated the pace of innovation. “Every CIO out there, every technology professional, would agree that for years, most of us were talking about digital revolution,” he said. With the advent of social distancing, “technology has become the — in some cases the only — connection between the governments and the citizens we serve.”

He described how the state’s unemployment website, which typically gets 93,000 hits a week, shot up to 1.4 million a week. “It was not designed to take that much load, especially on the back end, so we had to be a lot more creative,” he said. “Innovation comes through necessity.”

In fact, a culture of innovation thrives in government IT, even if it often goes unnoticed, said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute. His team recently conducted a study that supported this.

“We find that there is an awful lot of innovation just below the surface that most people never hear about,” he said, adding that strategic vision, creativity and collaboration are keys to unlocking that potential.

A collaborative mindset helps some at the state and local level to put that innovative energy into action. In Sonoma County, Calif., for example, IT leaders have worked to break down organizational silos in order to drive more nimble processes in support of a public benefits program for vulnerable individuals.

“Collaboration is foundational to the work that we’ve done,” said Director of Health Services Barbie Robinson. “We have an integrated data hub, for example, that allows teams working with consumers to have access to information they wouldn’t ordinarily, or historically didn’t, have access to. That really was critical to being able to think about what the holistic needs are and to respond to those needs.”

In addition to responding to citizen needs, state and local IT have had to address rapidly changing requirements in the workforce. While the shift to work-at-home has forced dramatic change across all state governments, some went into it better prepared than others.

Nebraska State CIO Ed Toner said his department’s 2017 efforts to consolidate technology platforms across state government were a key factor driving the successful push to remote working. “We all use the same virtual private networks. We all use the same tool sets or video conferencing and things of that sort,” he said. “We haven’t really been impacted very much and I really do attribute that to the consolidation efforts.”

That shared IT ecosystem has helped the workforce to continue being productive even under trying circumstances. When citizens access services virtually, “it hits our content management system, we can review the paperwork electronically,” Toner said. As a result, “we’re really productive at home.”

Even as states strive to remain productive, IT leaders are looking ahead. At Think Gov, federal technology officers addressed the continued push for cognitive apps, shedding insight on an area of ongoing interest to state and local tech leaders.

As director of the Procurement Innovation Lab in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Polly Hall described end user buy-in and small-scale pilots as key to the long-range development of cognitive technologies.

In an effort to automate acquisition processes, “we surveyed, we interviewed the frontline acquisition professionals that are involved day to day in our acquisition process and asked them about their pain points,” Hall said.

That input in turn helped to drive a pilot effort, which now is being scaled up. For state and local government, the Think Gov panel suggested, this start-small approach will be key to successful efforts around things like intelligent automation and robotic processes.

All these efforts are unfolding at a time when cybersecurity is an ever-increasing concern for government IT departments. The COVID-inspired push to telework has created a vast landscape of potentially vulnerable new endpoints.

IBM Security General Manager Mary O’Brien said that complexity and a lack of skills are the greatest cyberchallenges today, and they go hand in hand. Government struggles to get and keep the talent needed to manage a vast ecosystem of security solutions.

“We don’t think anybody has a plan that will increase our cybersecurity workforce at the rate needed to satisfy the demand,” she said. What’s needed, therefore, is greater simplicity. “We can change how our security tools are designed and built so that they’re better suited to securing a modern enterprise.”

Government needs security solutions that are interoperable, intuitive and cloud-native, “so that they can scale with our businesses at the speed needed today and into the future,” she said.

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