Connecting state and local government leaders
More than 20 years after a report foresaw a government dominated by digital services, an update finds that a lack of tech savvy workers and funding are hampering efforts to realize that vision.
“Have you seen the future of government?” booms the voice of late public television announcer Peter Thomas in a 2001 video from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. His narration overlays visuals of large desktop computers, old web browsers, scrolling binary code and a soundtrack that sounds like jaunty elevator music.
The video is a time capsule from a different era, envisaging an “architecture of information” that allows residents from the comfort of their homes to access and order birth and other vital records, communicate disaster relief needs instantly and update driver’s license records with new addresses or name changes, among other services.
The Future of Government video accompanies a report that paints in greater detail a time where state and local governments embrace digital technology and the internet to provide an easy to use, consistent and unified set of services across multiple agencies. Twenty-two years later, NASCIO has issued an update to that report.
And while many of the ideas in the report and video have come to fruition, its authors conclude that a lot of work remains to be done if governments are to truly realize the vision outlined: a future where through digital services residents’ government experience “personal, custom-built for each user with features that are accessible.”
The report acknowledges that states have indeed undertaken an extensive list of projects to digitize their services, and that strategic plans and similar planning documents emphasize the importance of digital government and ensuring positive experiences for residents.
But significant challenges remain. The report calls for state leaders to prioritize cybersecurity, privacy and identity management when digitizing government services, including by requiring cybersecurity training of employees. Indeed, CIOs worry that the state government workforce lacks the skills necessary to implement and maintain digital services.
About 63% of CIOs said in a recent survey that a lack of workforce skills and capabilities constrain their efforts to deliver digital services, despite ongoing attempts to recruit tech savvy employees and the proliferation of new job titles like “director of customer experience.”
A lack of a unified approach to digital services across government agencies can also hamstring progress, especially if those agencies think of themselves as their “own separate, independent business,” said Utah CIO Alan Fuller during a panel discussion at NASCIO’s annual conference this week in Minneapolis.
The challenges of digitizing government was a frequent topic of panelists throughout the conference. In his session, Fuller explained that when agencies are siloed or act alone that can mean identity management is especially difficult. One resident may have separate credentials to engage with separate agencies and different data housed in different places. With more than 1,800 government services available online in Utah, he said, that can be unwieldy for residents.
That is why Utah is moving forward with a one-stop portal to try and unify digital government services, Fuller said, in keeping with Gov. Spencer Cox’s priority to provide better customer experience to Utah residents. Once built, for example, someone could pay for a hunting license and vehicle registration in one place using one credential.
Fuller said he has looked to get state agencies to embrace the “no wrong door” philosophy, meaning that residents can go to any part of state government, either online or in person, and be recognized. He also said he wants agencies to have a similar look and feel, all to give the idea of a unified structure.
Another area for improvement is getting all citizens to engage with digital government services. Ohio CIO Katrina Flory stressed the importance of making sure “we’re bringing everybody along” by offering multiple ways for residents to get involved, including by phone and in-person.
Fuller said states should try to map out the “customer journey” to understand how humans move through various systems. For those most at risk, he said, governments could use digital offerings to show them which benefits they are entitled to receive, and “make it so much easier and better for that person to get through the process.”
Privacy remains a major concern, however, especially as residents fear what Tennessee CIO and NASCIO President Stephanie Dedmon called a “big brother-ish” government that monitors your every move. Fuller said if states promote one-stop portals, it is imperative for them to be transparent about the records they collect, how they track and share data, under what authority they do so, and the rules around how long the data is retained.
“The citizen portal then becomes a platform to push out more data privacy and visibility than we've ever done before, as a state,” he said. “Hopefully that gives citizens a sense of comfort.”
Finally, funding digital government services remains a big obstacle, even as study after study has shown the economic benefits of such efforts. For example, Fuller noted that even as Utah’s population has expanded, the growth of digital services has meant the state has not needed to build any new Division of Motor Vehicles customer service facilities. But while it can be tricky to get lawmakers to see the economic impact of digital services, lowering capital investments can help.
“The bottom line is, we're not having to invest in the brick-and-mortar business nearly to the extent that we have seen before,” Fuller said. “They can see those savings.”