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CIOs on How to Reframe the Future with Emerging Tech

The annual NASCIO conference concludes with a look at how states are developing governance frameworks around the latest technologies to ensure a focus on citizens and avoid being drawn toward “every shiny widget.”

The lure of the latest breakthrough technology can be strong, but state chief information officers also need to take more practical considerations into account when contemplating new deployments. In a live session on the last day of the NASCIO annual conference, moderator Chris Estes, former CIO of North Carolina, who now works at EY, was joined by Utah CIO Mike Hussey and Pennsylvania CIO John MacMillan to weigh in on a new report from NASCIO and EY, How Will the Power of Emerging Technology Help Reframe your Future? 

Indeed, a more measured approach seems the most prudent for government. “You can’t always do every shiny widget that comes through the front door,” Hussey said. But as has been proven repeatedly during the past several months when CIOs have been focused on digital service delivery during the pandemic, there’s a place for innovation in state government. And in fact, it’s what citizens expect.

To support this point, Estes recalled a comment from Rhode Island CIO Bijay Kumar: “There’s no way government can not do emerging technology when the citizens are so used to using it.” 

Critical to the successful use of emerging technologies in government, then, is constructing appropriate guard rails to make sure it is used responsibly in a way that produces value. In short, good governance is paramount. 

Governance: The Utah and Pennsylvania Approaches

In Utah, there are a few groups responsible for evaluating the potential of new technologies and their applicability to state government. An agency review board, Hussey explained, is made up of staff from various departments and business areas. They offer specific organizational perspectives on how a technology might be used to solve business problems for the state. Their work is complemented by an external technology advisory board with representatives from outside of state government. Together, Hussey explained, the two groups serve as an effective vetting mechanism before any investment decisions are made. 

Yet another body involved in evaluating emerging tech applications for Utah is its center for excellence for artificial intelligence, established in 2019. At a recent virtual event, Utah Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher counted about a dozen major initiatives currently underway from the center. 

MacMillan explained that Pennsylvania began looking at best practices around architecture frameworks a couple of years back, eventually arriving at its Commonwealth Innovation Architecture Framework (CIAF). The framework is made up of seven models (in performance, business, data, application, technology, security and digital) to help establish standard governance on how the state approaches the use of emerging technologies. These well-defined parameters keep the state focused on the right things. 

Panelists concurred with an assessment offered by Tennessee CIO Stephanie Dedmon: “Emerging tech needs to add value, solve problems and make things easier.” MacMillan added that the approach in Pennsylvania is to ensure that tech investments fit within the context of existing architecture, and further, that tech must solve a business problem. “IT is not in business for itself,” he said. 

Most Impactful Emerging Tech

In the annual NASCIO State CIO survey released Tuesday, more than half (61 percent) of respondents said artificial intelligence was their top prediction for the emerging technology that will be the most impactful in the next three to five years. The response isn’t surprising given how the pandemic has pushed governments to quickly move services online, a move often supported by chatbots, machine learning and robotic processes automation (RPA).

The emerging tech survey found that the top place respondents believe AI-powered solutions like these will make the most impact is in citizen-facing digital services, like chatbots that can help residents get their questions answered more quickly than trying to call a government agency. MacMillan said that in Pennsylvania, they’ve experimented with the potential interactions AI can have and the “intents” of citizen questions so they are then pointed in the right direction. This tracks with his notion that you can’t just toss out a new solution and expect it to work perfectly. “Each one of these emerging technologies requires some kind of care and feeding,” MacMillan stressed.

Survey responses that followed automation included low-code app development (33 percent), and the Internet of Things and connected/autonomous vehicles (tied at 2.3 percent). The latter are congruent with what Hussey sees coming down the pipeline, pointing to Utah’s smart corridor project and vehicle-to-infrastructure work. “I know it’s a very small piece right now,” he said, “but certainly that’s where you’ll start to see that take off.”  

Utah is also exploring new applications for drones to measure air quality at various altitudes, given the smoke that has moved into their state from the west, and is looking at taking vehicle titles digitally so citizens don’t need to visit a DMV to transfer ownership. “We’re eyeing a potential solution that’s on blockchain,” Hussey said. “There’s a lot of opportunities to get excited about the new technologies,” he added.

Barriers to Adoption

Of course, all the opportunities and excitement about solutions like chatbots and connected vehicles don’t necessarily mean there aren’t challenges to putting emerging tech in place for state government. Respondents to the survey ranked budget as the most challenging obstacle to getting emerging tech projects off the ground, which MacMillan agreed with, noting that “every new CIO understands their success relies on the budget director in some form or another.”

In Pennsylvania, they have a system of procurement waivers, built upon state code originally written in 1929 that has been updated through the years. The value, he explained, is that a waiver makes sure his IT agency can consider “valid exceptions” when other statutes might prohibit a novel technology.

Hussey said that Utah, on the other hand, has an annual innovation fund that goes toward innovative ideas and allows the state to demonstrate that a technology solution will have appropriate return on investment.

In addition to issues around how to fund emerging tech, survey respondents also cited alignment of use cases, legacy IT systems, lack of necessary staff skills and organizational silos as barriers to adoption. And MacMillan sees questions arising around how an increasingly connected life is regulated.

“This kind of technology has to become a national technology,” he said, pointing to work in Pennsylvania around self-driving cars and asking what happens when those cars reach a jurisdictional border. “It can’t just be a unique occurrence within a state. There are lots of problems to solve on the road to autonomous vehicles.”

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic. 

Government Technology is Governing's sister e.Republic publication, offering in-depth coverage of IT case studies, emerging technologies and the implications of digital technology on the policies and management of public sector organizations.
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