Lessons in Government and the State of Your IT

Have you ever considered how state and local government IT departments differ from yours? The challenges are unique, the solutions creative, and the lessons learned could help the private sector more effectively assess and enhance the state of their own IT.

In November, I had the privilege to attend a CIO roundtable. I’ve attended these types of events before but what made this one unique was that all the CIOs were from state and local governments in the US. The format was great, and the leaders held a very candid and open discussion on the challenges they’re facing and successes they’ve had.

Because they’re all essentially working towards the same goal they had no issues in sharing with each other, and all took something away from the event that they could bring home and hopefully implement in their own way.

Have you ever considered how your state and local government IT departments differ from your own?

If you think your private sector company has politics, you have no idea what these leaders have to deal with’s literally politics! The budgets for these CIOs require approval and funding by the governments they represent. Not only that, many of the legislators have no information technology background, so every spending measure is questioned. One of the guest speakers at dinner one evening was Jamie Grant, who is in the Florida House of Representatives. It was great hearing his perspective because he actually has some technical background, and as a result, often has to explain some details to others to try and get spending approved.

Top of mind for all of the CIOs is risk and how to mitigate it. We’ve all seen stories of companies (and states) that have mishandled data for customers and citizens. Trying to keep the “bad guys” out is a constant struggle. Many are just trying to do their best with often limited resources. In fact, there are some states that work regularly with the private sector and have a cyber-civilian model. It’s essentially like having volunteer firefighters but for cybersecurity. Companies and individuals donate their time and help the state to be more secure and able to respond if an attack does happen.

The other topic that kept coming up was identity management, but not for employees, for citizens. If you consider how many state and local agencies a person deals with, you can start to understand the issue. Why do you need a separate login for every state agency? Shouldn’t you be able to get your license plates renewed, purchase a fishing/hunting license, and pay your property taxes through a single portal? In a perfect world, you would. However, when you consider how each agency is separate from the others, and all have their own systems, you begin to understand the difficulty. Some states are doing better than others in this regard but it all comes back to risk. The risk of sharing information across multiple state and local agencies holds many challenges.

On the final day of the event, there was an entire session dedicated to hiring and employee retention. Typically, governments don’t attract the top talent in the IT field simply because they can’t compete with the private sector on salary. So when you know a person you’re interviewing can get more money somewhere else, you have to be more creative.

Some states have modern, open workspaces similar to what you’d find at many Silicon Valley startups (but without the free food). One theme that resonated is that working for a state or local government should be viewed as “public service.” Sure, you could make more money somewhere else but in government you get much more responsibility and experience. With that in mind, spending a few years working for a state or local government could actually translate to a much better career opportunity than a few years at a startup. This could also provide the private sector with a strong pool of experience candidates.

One final thing to consider in the public space is profit, or lack thereof. In the private sector, profit is typically the foremost goal for everyone in the company. In the public sector it is completely opposite. Budgets are created and money allocated, and for most states, the departments have to spend those finances while not bringing in any new revenue. Basically they can’t have any profit, they just need to cover their costs.

This is why in many states you have to pay a “convenience fee” when you do a financial transaction with the government over the Internet. You may think the state is charging you to stay at home and not have to wait in line at the DMV, but the reality is this fee goes directly to the credit card processing company --  the government isn’t collecting it.

I’d like to thank the Texas Technology Consortium and sponsors for putting on this event. It was a great experience and I know each CIO got something out it. For me, it offered valuable lessons on the challenges government agencies face and creative solutions; insight I believe that could help the private sector more effectively assess and enhance the state of their IT.

Doug Hazelman is vice president of product strategy for Veeam Software, provider of solutions that deliver Availability for the Always-On Enterprise.


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