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State CIOs roll with COVID’s disruption

While the coronavirus pandemic changed how state CIOs manage automation, digital government, broadband and disaster recovery, the biggest lesson learned was that remote work actually works, a new report found.

“Prior to the pandemic, only a few states had implemented robust remote work polices and work from home was not widespread,” according to “The Agile State CIO: Leading in a Time of Uncertainty,” which the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO), Grant Thornton and CompTIA released Oct. 13. “The pandemic has proven that remote work can be successful without negatively impacting the business of state government. Whether or not remote work is here to stay for all who have worked from home in 2020 remains to be seen, but all state CIOs agree there will be significant and long-lasting changes to government and their workforce.”

COVID-19 dominated NASCIO’s 11th annual survey, to which 47 state and territory CIOs replied. After all, the virus put IT in the spotlight, especially as many agencies responded to the pandemic by introducing automation and emerging technologies. Specifically, 76% of respondents said they began using chatbots for public service inquiries, and 53% began using mobile apps for contact tracing and exposure notification.

Improving and speeding public services was the main driver of interest in automation software for 77% of respondents. Other reasons include improving internal government processes (74%) and boosting staff morale by eliminating repetitive tasks (44%).

In line with the CIOs’ focus on digital services, 98% of respondents said that improving online experience for users was their top priority, while 74% cited optimizing operations and lowering costs, and 64% said increased public participation and engagement. Of those agencies with transformation efforts under way, 65% said they’re having a positive effect.

This year’s survey included questions on broadband, a hot topic before the pandemic, but more so during it. In fact, 81% of respondents said their states will accelerate the implementation of their broadband strategies because of COVID-19. Three-quarters of states have strategies in place, and of those, 79% updated them within the past year. Almost 90% of respondents said funding was the most important element in their broadband strategies, followed by the digital divide in rural areas (77%) and accessibility (60%).

The pandemic also emphasized to CIOs the importance of flexible continuity of operations and disaster response plans. Only 32% of respondents said they had a pandemic annex as part of their disaster planning before COVID-19, but “it is expected that the COVID-19 pandemic will change this outlook, and, in the future, more CIOs will advocate for a pandemic annex,” the report stated.

The coronavirus also made the case for the cloud as state governments worked to handle increases in online transactions. Only 41% of respondents said they have a cloud-first strategy for all new applications deployed to the cloud, 29% said there is no statewide cloud migration strategy but cloud use is encouraged, and 17% said individual agencies manage applications but the state is moving or has moved to infrastructure-as-a-service or third-party data hosting. Still, 14% said they have no cloud migration strategy or plan.

Some of the changes resulting from the pandemic could be permanent. Respondents said that expanded work-from-home and remote work options, wider use of collaboration platforms and increased attention on digital government services and user experience are the most likely business processes, practices and investments to change post-COVID.

“State CIOs have certainly faced new challenges in 2020,” NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson said. “Their experiences will inform how state IT operates -- from changing business models to digital government to disaster recovery and business continuity -- for the near and long term.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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