Survey: IT tools may add, rather than reduce, complexity

Lawmakers mull fixes for state and local tech challenges

Updating legacy technology, addressing scalability of systems and upskilling the workforce are among the strategies lawmakers are considering for helping state and local governments modernize their IT systems.

During a June 30 hearing, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said that the pandemic had exacerbated problems caused by “deferred investment” in government IT. However, he said, “we must not let the lessons learned during the crisis go to waste." Connelly urged that the federal government “provide guidance and best practices on IT modernization as it also swallows that medicine itself."

Connolly is planning on introducing the State and Local Digital Service Act. A House companion to a Senate bill , it would authorize funding for state and local tech strike teams modeled after the federal U.S. Digital Service and 18F. He also intends to reintroduce the Restore the Partnership Act, which would re-establish an intergovernmental task force to help foster intergovernmental work on government IT issues.

Streamlining federal cybersecurity and data privacy regulations for states could be especially impactful, said Teri Takai, vice president at the Center for Digital Government and a former Defense Department CIO.

In 2020, the Government Accountability Office found that "each federal agency that exchanges data [with states] has specific regulations, guidelines, or other requirements for states to follow when accessing, storing, and transmitting … data," but improving consistency in policies could save millions in federal and state costs.

"I think it's essential that there is a harmonization [of these regulations] because it is a burden, particularly on state, but more so on local, government, to ensure compliance," Takai explained, emphasizing that this should be done with state and local government input.

Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Associate of State Chief Information Officers, also pushed Congress to harmonize regulations across agencies.

Another problem uncovered by the pandemic was that many government systems were unable to quickly scale to meet spikes in demand for government services.

"It's not about the availability of the technology to solve the problem. It's the necessary business process re-engineering that has to take place, as well as creating more citizen centric opportunities. That's where there clearly was a gap," said Robinson. "States had not prepared for that kind of magnitude of demand."

He also noted that states were unprepared to combat fraud during spikes in demand for unemployment benefits.

"Only in recent months have [states] invested in advanced analytics and automated fraud detection services," he said. "They would all recognize that they had not prepared for something as extreme as the pandemic when it came to the magnitude, the volume and velocity of those requests coming in, and they didn't have the capabilities up front to do predictive analytics to stop the fraud."

Modernizing legacy systems will require state governments to get onboard not only the state CIOs, but also executive and legislative branches that make budgets, he said.

When they modernize, states should take an enterprise view, Takai said.

"The relationship between IT modernization, digital citizen services and cybersecurity is critical. There's a risk that these three technology efforts will be seen separately," she said. "It is impossible to drive digital transformation without focusing on an overall enterprise approach."

Progress will also require skilled workers.

State and local governments are feeling the squeeze of a tight market for IT talent just like federal agencies and the private sector, said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute. Government must also reskill IT professionals for an ever-changing landscape, he said.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.

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