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5 Tech Issues Every Governor Needs to Know

A recent survey of state CIOs shows how governments can modernize and run efficiently.

Technology isn’t a top concern for a newly elected governor. It’s less pressing than economic development, education or public safety for sure. But with the elections over in dozens of states, the governors -- both newly elected and re-elected -- might want to take some time assessing their state’s information technology systems and the people who run them. 

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Why? That’s because technology is now embedded in all the critical programs that states run. Like banks and other major institutions that rely heavily on computers to operate these days, state government has become increasingly digital and can’t afford to have systems that under-perform or fail. Just look at what happened with several state-run health exchanges.

To help the incoming governors understand what to focus on, here’s a list of five important technology issues, based on the results of a recent survey by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).  A well-run IT operation can help modernize a state and keep it operating efficiently. But it takes an awareness of the issues to ensure success.


With an ever-increasing number of data breaches occurring in the past year at large firms (Target, Neiman Marcus, J.P. Morgan, Home Depot), cybersecurity has become a major concern at the national level, costing billions of dollars. For states, attacks on government computer systems have also increased in size and scope. In recent years, large and expensive breaches have occurred at computers in South Carolina, Oregon and Washington. 

The problem is going to get worse for three reasons: First, the attackers are becoming more sophisticated, with breaches growing in complexity, intensity and volume, according to the NASCIO. Second, nearly half of all states spend less than 2 percent of their overall technology budget on security. In contrast, the private sector spends between 4 and 6 percent of its technology budget on cybersecurity, according to the research firm Gartner. Third, states are struggling to attract the kind of talent needed to run the sophisticated cybersecurity systems needed in today’s environment. But states are pitted against deep pockets in the private sector, which is willing to pay more for skilled IT workers.

Governors need to make sure there’s more funding available for cybersecurity initiatives if they don’t want to end up like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration. In 2012 hackers breached the state’s department of revenue computers, costing South Carolina $14 million. But they also have to make sure cybersecurity is an enterprise initiative that involves training and education for workers, who are the reason for many breaches, thanks to errors and mistakes. And they have to let their CIOs devise creative ways to recruit top tier talent to work in this increasingly important endeavor.

Project management

Critical computer projects are becoming larger, according to state CIOs. They also represent a bigger percentage of the work done, with a number of state CIOs reporting that large projects make up 90 percent of all technology work. How big are these initiatives? Three-quarters of all state CIOs report they are overseeing at least one $100 million IT project. Big IT projects are complex to manage and require a very high level of coordination across various levels of governments, agencies, units, non-governmental partners and contractors, according to Theresa Pardo, director of the Center for Technology in Government. 

Coordination is a highly-prized skill in project management and without the ability to lead teams of coders, developers and staff, large computer projects can easily go off the rails. Just look at what happened to state-built health exchanges in Oregon, Maryland and Massachusetts, as well as last year’s rollout of the federal exchange. Poor project management was cited repeatedly as one of the reasons the health exchanges failed to work as promised, and it’s why CIOs rate sound project management as one of the most important success factors in systems that do work.

With computer technology embedded in just about every aspect of state government, governors know that when something goes wrong technologically, it can make their leadership look inept or worse. They can avoid those kinds of costly mistakes by emphasizing the need for rigorous project management for all IT projects.


Purchasing has long been the big problem with governmental attempts to use technology well. State procurement policies are designed to favor low cost purchases based on competitive bidding. However, buying asphalt, bricks or trucks isn’t the same as buying an online welfare eligibility system. CIOs have long argued that IT procurement should be based on best value, which can include such factors as the long-term benefit of the computer system, how well it can reduce program costs and whether it boosts workers’ productivity. Recently there’s been a glimmer of hope that procurement is finally getting its act together when it comes to IT. NASCIO’s survey of state CIOs found that 51 percent said their state’s procurement process for certain aspects of technology services was moderately effective. Another 21.6 percent said their procurement office was very effective.

Unfortunately, technology trends are forcing procurement to play catch-up once again. State CIOs want to use more of the new cloud services, which means paying a fee or subscription for a software or computer service that’s delivered over the Internet, rather than purchase and own all the hardware and software. Cloud computing can dramatically lower the cost of technology, but in order to use these services, CIOs need more flexible procurement rules. 

Cloud computing means government could end up owning less technology, which reduces the need for capital budgets to pay for computers. Instead, government will “consume” technology by renting out servers and storage or subscribing to new software tools, with usage rising and falling based on demand. That means states will have to shift towards funding IT through operational budgets, a new concept that will take time to learn and will require some changes to the procurement process. When a state CIO says he or she wants to take advantage of cloud services, be prepared to also talk about reforming your state’s procurement system too.


Last year, more Americans used a mobile device than a PC to access the Internet, according to the research firm Enders Analysis.  It’s the reason why a growing number of states are adopting a mobile-first strategy when it comes to designing online services for state residents. But having a strategy and making it work are two different things. The state of Utah, which has been more aggressive than most states in offering mobile services, has over 200 mobile apps, but that’s still a fraction of the more than 1,100 online services it currently offers.  (The ideal situation is one where each service is available both to mobile users via an app, and online to regular desktop PC users.) Most states have far fewer.

State workers also want to use mobile devices during their work hours. More than 50 percent of all government employees now spend up to half their time outside the office and more than 75 percent of their Internet viewing is done wirelessly. Those numbers will continue to grow. Yet nearly one-third (31 percent) of state CIOs say the management of mobile technology is fragmented. The lack of coherent mobile strategies -- for both public services and internal operations -- will stymie government modernization.

Governors can take a lead on this issue by establishing a mobile-first strategy, if their state doesn’t have one already. It will show their state is both tech-savvy and innovative, two qualities that companies in the knowledge economy look for when setting up business.  But having a mobile-first strategy calls for an investment in new technologies, better wireless infrastructure and workers who have the latest skills in mobile computing.


If there’s an underlying theme to all these issues it’s that state government has a workforce problem when it comes to technology. State CIOs rank workforce as a top 10 priority for 2015. The problem is not just recruiting new workers, but also retaining the skilled staff already employed in state government. 

Why the crisis? Patrick Mallory, a consultant with Deloitte, explained in a recent article: “First, there is a general national shortage for those with technology degrees and experience. Second, the experienced IT workforce government does have is beginning to retire in large numbers, not only leaving open seats but also taking their institutional knowledge with them. And third, government is simply being out-hustled by the private sector.”

Mallory calls for governments to think and act more innovatively when it comes to recruiting future IT workers, and he includes using paid internships and fellowships as a way to attract new talent. But it also has to streamline what is a cumbersome hiring process and to freshen up how it announces and promotes job openings, so that young people are aware of the options and opportunities that come with working in government. 

For governors, there are some easy projects on this list: increasing a state’s cybersecurity budget and moving to a mobile-first strategy can be done relatively quickly. Other issues, such as bolstering IT workforce, reforming procurement and improving project management skills, could take longer. 

One key to success is getting a proven IT leader as a state’s CIO. With so many new governors, turnover in the top IT spot is bound to happen. Choose wisely and be bold. There’s never been a better time to modernize the business of government through the use of technology. But it has to be done the right way and with the right people.

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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