The COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden need for digital service delivery exposed gaps in the technology capabilities of state and local governments, which struggled to meet constituents’ needs during a time of crisis. In the wake of the pandemic, citizens continue to demand a more customer friendly experience when accessing critical government services. To keep pace, state and local governments are accelerating modernization efforts and looking to emerging technologies to build a digital government, where processes and services are fully connected and automated to deliver timely, responsive citizen services.

MeriTalk recently sat down with Clara Conti, Red Hat’s vice president and general manager, public sector, to discuss how state and local governments can overcome obstacles in their modernization efforts and achieve digital transformation – and mission success.

MeriTalk: Have state and local government technology goals and initiatives changed since before the pandemic? What initiatives should technology teams focus their time and resources on in a post-pandemic environment?

Conti: The nature of the pandemic amplified not only the demand for critical citizen services, but also highlighted the need to shift the way those services are delivered, especially to citizens who might not have access due to factors such as connectivity issues or being in a rural environment. Broadband and wireless connectivity have become much higher priorities over the last two years because of the pandemic. We’ve all experienced the work-from-home mandates and distance learning needs. State and local governments have had to invest in strengthening statewide internet connectivity with rural expansion and 5G deployments to meet those new needs.

We’re also seeing increasing digital experience expectations on government agencies from citizens who want the same easy access, responsiveness, and transparency they have in other aspects of their lives. State and local agencies must be able to reach their citizens in a timely manner with pertinent information and services if they want proactive citizen engagement. That means adopting technologies that offer the agility to meet shifting demands and establish a culture of collaboration.

MeriTalk: According to NASCIO’s 2022 list of State CIO Top 10 Priorities, developing digital government/digital services is top of mind for state CIOs. What does a digital government mean to you, and why is it so important?

Conti: Digital government means agencies have transformed — or are in the process of transforming — their processes, data management, and services into fully connected and automated systems to deliver more timely, responsive services to constituents. The lack of digital government across the United States affected many things during the pandemic. I like to share the experiences of my sister-in-law, who is a public high school teacher. When the pandemic first happened, and everyone was sent home, she had to mail hard copy worksheets home to her students because they either didn’t have internet access or didn’t have the technology at home to view worksheets. That example really highlights why we need digital transformation across state and local governments. Making progress on this journey helps agencies deliver equitable services and a consistent digital experience for their constituents.

MeriTalk: What do agencies need to do to achieve a digital government? Where are they having success, and what may be holding them back?

Conti: With cloud computing and software-as-a-service offerings, innovative technologies are more accessible than ever. Many agencies have already started to have some early successes there. However, in the absence of a broader strategy, those agencies are at risk of creating modernized silos.

Agencies need to take the step of defining their digital transformation strategy, and ensure it encompasses technology, culture, and processes all together. There’s room for improvement in every state government when developing that strategy. Keeping in mind the importance of citizen engagement, states that have adopted citizen-centric interfaces and the modern technology behind them have seen the most success.

MeriTalk: What steps do agencies need to take to sustain digital initiatives for the long term?  

Conti: It’s important to understand that government agencies and the services they provide are interdependent. Agencies all serve the same citizens and can benefit from shared technologies, data, and processes. So when an agency decides to tackle a problem, it will serve that agency better to work with the central IT or other agencies to find a common solution. This approach will solve more than just the problem at hand. Leveraging a technology or process that’s been useful in another agency and sharing lessons learned will benefit everyone involved, from employees to constituents.

MeriTalk: In that same NASCIO report, state CIOs pointed to artificial intelligence (AI) technology as a top priority. What are potential use cases for AI in state and local government? How can agencies tap into the power of AI to support citizen services?

Conti: Chat bots and virtual assistants are great use case examples that can have an immediate impact. With AI-powered assistants, citizens can get real-time support for questions and guidance to resolve issues by themselves, rather than waiting for a human representative to execute manual steps to a resolution. Also, consider vaccine attestation – with computer vision and trained machine-learning (ML) models, organizations can validate vaccination cards automatically, reducing time and cost.

Agencies can tap into the power of AI through a combination of independent software vendor (ISV) solutions that provide specific capabilities, and they can apply AI/ML technologies to their own enterprise applications. Technologies like containers and Kubernetes provide a flexible and scalable platform to run AI/ML workloads across the hybrid cloud and accelerate the machine-learning lifecycle for intelligent applications.

MeriTalk: How can open-source technologies like Red Hat help state and local governments expand and deploy new capabilities to achieve digital transformation? What do agencies gain from open source that they don’t get from proprietary technology? 

Conti: The Red Hat OpenShift container platform provides a single, open hybrid cloud platform for government agencies to build, deploy, run, and manage applications at scale on any infrastructure or cloud provider. Using open-source technology helps standardize processes across agencies while avoiding vendor lock in. It accelerates innovation while offering enterprise support and security from a trusted partner.

MeriTalk: Red Hat recently partnered with Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management, and Budget (DTMB) to implement a container-based infrastructure built on Red Hat’s OpenShift platform. What was the department trying to accomplish, and how did OpenShift help?

Conti: Michigan’s DTMB supports agencies across Michigan in improving the citizen experience. It helps agencies modernize existing applications and convert new ideas to new applications quickly.

In this case, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) worked with DTMB to improve COVID-19 contact tracing. DTMB partnered with RedHat to implement DevSecOps processes using the OpenShift platform, which enabled the team to develop and deploy the MDHHS SMS outreach capabilities in two days. Through the SMS outreach, MDHHS reached approximately 1 million citizens per month, increasing the success rate of contact tracing and saving an estimated $17,000 per day and an estimated $300,000 overall.

MeriTalk: After the project, the DTMB’s CTO said, “Containers were new to us, but by the end of the implementation, our engineers and architects knew how to take advantage of our Red Hat OpenShift deployment.” Can you tell us about your process when working with agency technology teams on the development and implementation of new technology initiatives?

Conti: We like to work in a partnership model with our customers. Not only do we contribute to the technical implementation, but we also like to mentor agency staff to help them learn transferable skills and best practices.

New technologies also bring about a new way of working, and it’s important to us that our customers can handle their own environments. We want them to understand what it means to use open-source technology, and to be able to innovate and grow. Collaboration along that journey is one of the greatest impacts we can have on a customer.

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