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State of Innovation: Lessons Learned in State Government

December 13, 2022

Dan Wolf
Director of State Programs

As the Alliance for Digital Innovation (ADI) ramps up its focus on innovation in state government, I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on my fifteen years of public service – both the challenges I experienced and what we can do to address them. I plan to use this blog regularly to share my thoughts in the hope they will help state officials working to modernize their IT and improve the digital services they offer to citizens.

Technology debt

State government is full of talented public servants who want to make a difference, and state IT workforces are much the same – unsung heroes who have managed to keep governments and schools running despite tight budgets and scarce resources. They often lack sufficient people to manage and run systems, as well as funding to acquire new technologies that would improve services and secure them. It’s impressive work, but it could be so much more with proper investment and better technology policy.

Because of these resource constraints, state governments have accumulated a significant amount of “technology debt” in the form of aging equipment and outdated technology. They struggle to design and execute comprehensive strategies to modernize their IT infrastructure and applications. New solutions are needed sooner rather than later to reduce cybersecurity risks and provide modern digital services to citizens.

ADI wants to make it easier for states to provide these critical services to constituents. State governments must identify new financial strategies to provide stable, recurring funding sources for major IT infrastructure projects. They also must utilize federal grant programs such as State & Local Cybersecurity Grant Program through the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to supplement state and local funding sources.

A change in mindset

The public sector is notoriously risk adverse, and there is little incentive for government agencies to take chances on new technologies. The perception both within and outside government is that an unforeseen complication on a government project is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and few elected officials are willing to risk such criticism. This translates into an environment where IT leaders seek to shift the maximum amount of project and contractual risk to an IT supplier. This must change. In my experience, this attitude is a major inhibitor to public sector innovation because it results in drastically increased costs and often deters tech companies from engaging with governments altogether.

This risk aversion coupled with a lengthy lead time to procure technology often leaves the public sector years behind other markets. By the time an agency has identified a need, developed their technical requirements, obtained funding, conducted a competitive procurement, awarded a contract, and applied cybersecurity requirements, they find themselves implementing a technology solution that is several years behind the times – and often with diminished capabilities. States must learn to prioritize risk mitigation over risk avoidance and move more quickly to adopt new, innovative technologies.

These issues negatively impact the citizen experience. In our modern world, when citizens interact with their government, they expect a technology experience similar to what they see and use on a daily basis – like ordering clothes or chatting with customer support at an online retailer. Instead, they often encounter a subpar user experience with limited transparency or features.

It’s important for citizen interactions with government to be simple and straightforward, whether in person or through a website. State IT must identify and implement modern, innovative services that add value to agencies’ underlying business and provide an attractive return on investment to the state. And to make it all work seamlessly, state governments must also promote greater investment in core services to provide government agencies with a stable, fast network and make sure the transaction and data are secure.

State IT leaders must evolve

There also must be a fundamental transformation in the leadership of central IT agencies. These organizations are very good at keeping the lights on and solving day-to-day problems, but state IT leaders must be more than an enterprise or application portfolio manager. They aren’t developing code or managing firewalls – their role is about strategy, communication, and managing relationships. Those traits are critical for them to become trusted business partners for other leaders within state government.

Why does this matter? When a state CIO or IT leader focuses on building relationships throughout state government, it inevitably leads to increased opportunities for collaboration and increased understanding of the business goals of policymakers. In turn, they are able to shine a spotlight on technology requirements in the development and implementation of any new policy and capitalize on additional opportunities for technology to improve the quality of citizen services.

The involvement of IT leaders from the start is critical to the success of any government project. I’ve observed many gubernatorial initiatives that were far less successful than if the state IT agency been included from the start – sometimes even resulting in negative headlines for the administration. States do their best with what they have, but there are opportunities for innovation that can lead to improved outcomes for everyone. At ADI, we are looking forward to helping them on this journey by advocating for smart policies and the adoption of best practices.