State and local government rely heavily on Federal funding sources to advance their IT goals even in the best of times, and government and industry experts explained at MeriTalk’s State Tech Vision virtual program how expanded Federal government funding streams during the pandemic era can work to help pay for traditional assistance for social service and healthcare applications, plus IT modernization efforts targeted by Washington.

The September 15 State Tech Vision conference – the first in a series planned by MeriTalk – remains available for on-demand viewing.

Putting Stimulus Funds to Work

As part of the Federal government’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress approved the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) in March of this year. State and local governments got a significant slice of that funding – about $350 billion.

While the $350 billion wasn’t earmarked exclusively for IT initiatives, state leaders have been able to use it to secure new funding to advance their priorities.

Michael Leahy, secretary of the Department of Information Technology and chief information officer for the state of Maryland, laid out his team’s priorities – upgrading security, finding better ways to work with the public, and modernizing the tools available to state employees.

Expanding on efforts to help state employees, Leahy said his office is working to ensure employees can work remotely, and is expanding the availability of tools to help digitize the workforce, namely expanding the use of artificial intelligence and robotic process automation technologies. The goal is to help employees automate tasks to work faster and more efficiently, Leahy said.

As for how his team is using Federal funding, Rajiv Rao, chief technology officer of New York State, echoed Leahy’s focus on mobile workforce. Rao explained that over the course of the pandemic, New York state went from a 20 percent remote workforce, to 80 percent.

Making that massive switch forced his team to change up its IT refresh strategy – moving from desktops to laptops for workers. Rao said the state also is focused on heavily investing in telecommute technologies to keep up with the number of desktops and laptops it is supporting.

Rao said his team has already used ARP funds to “beef up network infrastructure” for remote offices. That investment includes upgrading bandwidth for remote work, as well as “significantly” upgrading the state’s security on the edge.

Local Governments Surging Funding to Broadband

When it comes to how local governments are using Federal funding, Dr. Alan Shark, executive director of Public Technology Institute – a division of CompTIA – said the focus was largely similar to how states allocated their funding, with a heavy emphasis on IT modernization and security.

On top of those two priorities, local governments have zeroed in on broadband service expansion, he said. “The great pivot of 2020 caused people to really realize how important [broadband] is,” Shark said. He added that investing in broadband would probably be the most visible investment for citizens, who are unlikely to notice the physical infrastructure upgrades happening within government networks.

When it comes to using funding to expand broadband access, Shark says it isn’t just about local government investing in actual broadband cables. Rather, governments need to get creative to address all of the barriers to broadband access.

Shark discussed local governments using funding to provide citizens with vouchers to purchase broadband services, and using local libraries and civic groups to provide digital training to help get citizens online. “You can’t just give someone broadband … and say ‘mission accomplished,’ you have to have a reason for doing it,” Shark said. Convincing citizens that getting online provides far more benefits than just entertainment also is critical, he added.

Industry Perspective

As state and local governments make a push for IT modernization, turning to private sector partners becomes essential.

In terms of what agencies need to consider as they embark on modernization projects, Rick Rosenburg, vice president and general manager of Public Sector at Rackspace, said “the most important thing agencies need to consider is sitting down and doing an assessment of their infrastructure and applications.” He explained that a “lift-and-shift approach of going from a data center to a cloud” doesn’t work well. “The agency won’t get the benefit of the cloud if they try to manage it like a data center. It just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Rather, an upfront assessment helps governments determine which applications are ready to move to the cloud and which can’t move to the cloud, but need to become “more cloudy.” Conducting an upfront assessment helps governments take advantage of serverless architecture, microservices, software-as-a-service applications, and application-platform-as-a-service applications, which helps agencies realize the true potential of cloud computing.

On top of just moving to the cloud, Rosenburg also said governments need to consider what makes sense to operate in a public cloud versus a private cloud. He noted that governments will also be using hybrid cloud setups, but that careful consideration needs to be given to what lives in the public or private clouds.

Helen Patton, advisory chief information security officer for Duo Security, addressed the importance of ensuring that zero trust principles are incorporated in modernization efforts, and said zero trust should be “considered to be basic cyber hygiene.”

She also said that as governments consider cyber insurance or public-private partnerships, insurers and private sector partners will be looking for governments to have zero trust principles in place. “If you get it right, it is something that can improve the user experience,” she explained.

Patton explained that state and local governments are dealing with far more types of technology than the private sector, and that zero trust works really well “in that hybrid, multi-tenant, multi-device environment.” On top of that, zero trust fulfills regulatory requirements, and can “serve as an enabler.”

Actually beginning the move to zero trust can be “a little overwhelming,” Patton said. To get started with the process, Patton echoed Rosenburg and said governments should “do a really quick evaluation of what they already have,” and then build on that.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs