Connecting state and local government leaders
The National Association of Counties is launching a new effort to help public sector officials better understand technology so they can make informed decisions about cybersecurity and IT budgeting and staffing.
We’ve interviewed hundreds of CIOs—at both the state and local level—over the years. These conversations tend to last quite a while, as we find ourselves forced to dig into the techno speak that’s not our native tongue. We’re not alone in experiencing this communications gap. It applies to many officials in government, and it’s much more important that they understand the world of technology in which they live.
Help is on the way.
The National Association of Counties is launching a year-long project to improve communications between county technology leaders and other county officials. The first step, released today, is an eight-page publication that contains a three-page executive summary about the first topic it will be covering—cybersecurity. In coming months, the full 20-page guide will be released to help foster understanding about that topic.
To learn about the series, which will ultimately produce guides to communication for the nation’s 3,069 counties, we talked with NACo CIO Rita Reynolds. She has been working with a 27-member IT advisory council in recent months to figure out what needs to be explained and how to do it in nontechnical terms. As Reynolds says, “Part of the message with all these guides is that if you’re a nontech person, you cannot hide from the technology.”
Following are excerpts from our conversation with Reynolds, who believes that while NACo’s work is geared to counties, it can be used by other local entities and state governments, as well.
Route Fifty: The project you’ve embarked on is very ambitious. How did it come about?
Rita Reynolds: It came about through my close work with CIOs. Our IT Advisory Council meets at least four times a year. It’s a great group of county leaders and they really care. They’re committed to public service, and they want to help move their counties forward in digital innovation.
Why do you feel that this work is necessary?
Reynolds: Technology underpins a county’s infrastructure. It’s a critical piece and part of the fabric of services that a county offers today. You cannot offer efficient-and-effective resident services without there being a component of technology involved.
What will your guides cover?
Reynolds: We’re doing separate guides on five areas. The first three will be on cybersecurity, budgeting and grants and geospatial technologies. The fourth will cover technology planning, innovation and implementation. Then the last one will be about workforce talent acquisition and retention.
We didn't want to roll this whole project out at once because we were sure it would scare people away.
How can you best explain technology needs without getting too technical or complex?
Reynolds: We’ve tried to use everyday examples. When you make this personal, then it’s a lot easier for other folks to understand. When you buy a car, you expect to have safety features in place. You don’t need to change the oil yourself, but you need to hire someone to keep that car in good running order. It’s your responsibility to pay attention to the warning lights when they come on.
Some officials have the perspective that technology isn’t their responsibility. But it’s everyone’s responsibility. There’s knowledge that needs to be there to make better decisions on budgeting and staffing.
Could you describe a little more about the first guide?
Reynolds: We’re including the top 10 questions that county leadership should be asking about cybersecurity. Does their county have a board-adopted information security program? Does it have a security response plan? Does it have multifactor authentication?
We’ve geared the executive summary to elected officials, but the full guides will have tracks for a variety of different government leaders.
These are simple questions for a county administrator or commissioner or other official to ask to help them understand what the county has and what’s needed.
Based on your experience, are leaders asking these questions?
No. The problem is that leaders mostly want to understand, but they don’t know what to ask or how to phrase the questions to get at critically important issues.
Why did you start with cybersecurity?
Reynolds: When you look across the continent and world, we’re in a serious situation when it comes to keeping our data secure, keeping our residents secure and keeping our employees secure. We can't neglect this.
We started with one of the hardest topics and the most complicated, but it also is one of the most critical.
Aren’t there a lot of other publications about cybersecurity?
Reynolds: Yes, but they are often very technical. Even when you look at federal resources, everything in cyber is focused on what needs to happen – the specifics. We wanted to go back to the “why” of cybersecurity. Why do you need to pay attention, even if you are not a technology person?
Do you have ways of testing how well your guides will work?
Reynolds: Our advisory council has been talking about this and one of the takeaways is that the IT county leaders who were involved in the creation of these guides will go back and sit with county officials and go through the first ones to get feedback. We want to keep the same format for the other guides and we’ll keep refining this before we roll the other ones out.
Apart from the guides, what’s your best bit of advice for individuals who lack technology knowledge about improving communication with tech staff?
Reynolds: My nontechnical answer is to get to know the IT leadership through coffee breaks or lunch and to understand what their top priorities are and why. I’m hoping that this helps officials without a technology background to better understand what the technology leaders do, why they do it, and why their approach and selection of projects is so important.
The better relationship you have before something happens, the better able you are to deal with whatever that emerging situation is. Then, when an emergency comes up, no one is starting from scratch. They’re starting from a higher level of understanding.
What do you hope will be the ultimate effect of these NACo guides?
It would be to see counties strengthen their technology infrastructure, capitalize on innovation and provide more efficient services to our residents.
Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.
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