5 minute read 15 Apr 2021
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How state CIOs helped maintain essential services during COVID-19

By Chris Estes

Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) US State, Local & Education Market | Finance, Operations & Technology Leader

Orchestrating EY capabilities that accelerate growth and innovation for governments and helping to enhance citizen interaction with emerging technologies. In my free time I enjoy slalom water skiing.

5 minute read 15 Apr 2021

In a sector not predisposed to working from home, adoption was enthusiastic and IT groups made certain the transition was seamless.

In brief

  • State workforces transitioned to remote working gracefully with the strong support of IT.
  • Managing public expectations around state services was a challenge in the pandemic’s initial stages and some systems strained under the load.
  • An EY survey pinpoints a dramatic cultural shift around remote working within the government sector.

CIOs and other data officers faced multifaceted challenges as COVID-19 took hold. Compared to the corporate world, organizational culture in the public sector did not typically encourage virtual teaming, working from home and other remote models. Prior to the crisis, fewer than 20% of government employees worked remotely often or always, according to an EY survey of these workers.

But when the pandemic hit, that mindset had to change rapidly if the crucial business of government was to continue. We spoke with six state technology leaders to learn more about their state’s transition to remote working and other surprises, successes and struggles during the pandemic:

  • JP McInnes, Deputy Chief Information Officer, State of Tennessee
  • Julia Richman, Deputy Executive Director, Colorado Office of Information Technology
  • Shawn Riley, Chief Information Officer, State of North Dakota
  • Dorman Bazzell, Chief Data Officer, State of North Dakota
  • Jeff Wann, Chief Information Officer, State of Missouri
  • Ervan Rodgers, Chief Information Officer, State of Ohio

Compared to the corporate world, organizational culture in the public sector did not typically encourage virtual teaming, working from home and other remote models. But when the pandemic hit, that mindset had to change rapidly if the crucial business of government was to continue.

A fast, enthusiastic transition to remote working

According to every information and data officer we spoke with, state workforces adapted quickly and readily to working from home. Within weeks, tens of thousands were working from home effectively. For instance, Colorado and Missouri state governments each moved around 17,000 staffers to remote work in a short period.

In Ohio, “our remote staff grew from 10% to 100% in less than a month,” Rodgers says. “Equally impressive, that transition included a shift from audio-only virtual meeting technology to a Teams environment.”

The move to remote working added new infrastructure burdens, but state IT departments rose to the occasion (see below). More important, state employees rose to meet their challenges by continuing to deliver essential services during a pandemic while working in a new, unfamiliar way.

“I was blown away by the unbelievable dedication of our state workers,” says North Dakota’s Riley. “Their efforts helped save lives and maintain vital government functions.”

The right tools for remote working for seamless service to the public

The success of remote working would not have been possible without the adaptability of state workers. But working from home also required a sufficient infrastructure to support it.

For many states, the process began with quickly getting laptops in the hands of employees. The scope of these efforts was unprecedented. Deployments that might have typically spread across a year suddenly needed to happen in weeks, and IT departments had to make it happen.

In Missouri, the state had deployed 2,000 laptops just before the pandemic, and they followed up with an additional 250 laptops per day as the crisis rolled on. The state of Tennessee obtained 2,500 laptops in little more than a month after work-from-home mandates took effect.

In addition to remote working, managing state responses to COVID-19 put heavy burdens on CIOs and their staff. With a public desperate for information, states had to set up chatbots, prepare FAQs, and roll out other tools to respond to millions of virus-related and economic inquiries.

Of course, laptops are only one part of a seamless remote working infrastructure. Adequate bandwidth, enhanced security and robust virtual meeting tools are essential. In Tennessee, that meant quadrupling bandwidth, adding two-factor authentication, and supporting a 500% increase in virtual meeting activity compared to the prior year.

In addition to remote working, managing state responses to COVID-19 put heavy burdens on CIOs and their staff. With a public desperate for information, states had to set up chatbots, prepare FAQs, and roll out other tools to respond to millions of virus-related and economic inquiries.

In Ohio, many COVID-related efforts came together via the state’s existing InnovateOhio platform, an InnovateOhio initiative, and an executive order (EO) from 2019 that focuses on IT innovation. “We got a jump on dealing with the pandemic thanks to the cloud-smart strategy,” says Rodgers, “and the EO included a data-sharing component that helped us pull together crucial data.”

Cloud technology was also useful in Tennessee, according to McInnes. “We were able to quickly scale our security program as remote working ramped up, thanks to a cloud-licensing program.”

In North Dakota, cloud technology offered similar benefits. “When our legacy VPN struggled, we implemented a cloud-based solution within 48 hours” to support remote working, Riley says.

The downside of muscle memory

North Dakota wasn’t the only state with VPN-related issues. Colorado’s Richman also reports that the state’s VPN is “limping along” amid a complex, non-centralized technology environment.

That said, the biggest struggles for CIOs during the past year weren’t purely technological. The most significant challenge was managing the interplay between government services and public expectations.

“Even though the technology was successfully deployed, [North Dakota’s] government was not prepared to function in a telework environment,” says Riley. A lack of flexibility was sand in the gears for operations. Rigid state rules around financials, procurement, deployment timetables and more continued to apply even amid unprecedented circumstances.

Navigating the crisis

78%

of respondents to an EY survey report their governmental organizations were moderately to extremely effective at managing remote working challenges.

“Old processes have a muscle memory that isn’t tuned for new ways of working and citizen expectations for digital services,” says North Dakota’s Bazzell. The state’s job service website, for instance, faltered under the load of a 3,600% traffic increase.

In Missouri, call centers were initially overwhelmed with 140,000 or more inquires a day about critical services such as unemployment insurance. In time though, thanks to hard work and CARES Act funding, the user experience improved.

Organizations continue to operate remotely

In one form or another, that message was echoed by all the state CIOs. Faced with enormous challenges, the successes far outweighed the struggles. Teamwork and resource-sharing were frequent. State workers readily adapted to working from home, and IT departments moved quickly to support them.

That EY survey supports these stories from the trenches. 78% of respondents say their organizations were moderately to extremely effective at managing processes, including IT, during the remote phase. And more than three out of four believe that the public sector will continue remote work even after the acute COVID-19 era has passed.

“Remote working creates so many options, including an expanded hiring pool,” says Colorado’s Richman. “Our non-working from home culture became one very quickly.”

Summary

Nearly a year into the pandemic, state IT departments continue to support remote workers and their mission to deliver critical public services during the crisis.

About this article

By Chris Estes

Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) US State, Local & Education Market | Finance, Operations & Technology Leader

Orchestrating EY capabilities that accelerate growth and innovation for governments and helping to enhance citizen interaction with emerging technologies. In my free time I enjoy slalom water skiing.