The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a lot of changes – from public health to remote work – but investing in technology upgrades to improve citizen services and cybersecurity could lead to the most lasting impact on state and local governments (SLGs), according to several state IT officials who spoke at MeriTalk’s State Tech Vision virtual event on March 29.

The event – which is available on-demand – featured a congressional keynote from Rep. Don Byer, D-Va., followed by a pair of panels on SLG cybersecurity and digital services. Panelists included JP McInnes, Deputy CIO for Tennessee; Jennifer Ricker, acting secretary and CIO for the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology; Michael Watson, Chief Information Security Officer of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency; and James Weaver, CIO for North Carolina and secretary of the state’s Department of IT.

McInnes said that the pandemic led to structural barriers to change – such as resistance from leadership – being knocked down by the necessity to change course quickly.

“What we found is that what the pandemic has done to us has been to create an unprecedented workload at the front door of many of our agencies like the Department of Health, and also the Department of Labor, which handled unemployment and things of that nature,” McInnes said during the event’s digital services panel.

“So, the resistance that we would normally see to change was actually very welcome during that time, McInnes added. “And our commissioners were very good about sharing the good experiences they had with other agencies. So, some of those roadblocks we traditionally saw were kind of knocked down for us just by circumstance.”

Rep. Byer emphasized the importance of speeding up citizen interactions with SLGs, as well as the benefits that investments in state unemployment insurance (UI) infrastructure have yielded both in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and any potential future pandemics.

“I think the most important piece is the interaction with the citizens,” Rep. Byer said. “So anytime we think about how a citizen has to turn to state government … being able to have those interactions quickly and easily makes an extraordinary difference.”

Weaver, who began the COVID-19 pandemic working in Washington state, said during the digital services panel that the pandemic also broke down various data silos that had previously existed. He said that development helped facilitate various technological updates in Washington, and said he saw a similar change take place in North Carolina.

“What we saw was the fact that this was a crisis of immense nature, and that provides for a lot of opportunities,” Weaver said. “At the end of the day, what was critical was data, and access to data, and knocking down the data silos. And through that, we were able to start doing some really creative things.”

Rep. Byer also lauded the funding for UI infrastructure included in the CARES Act of 2020 and the American Rescue Plan of 2021; the latter included $2 billion in funding for state UI systems. Rep. Byer said that those investments should help states prepare for the next major crisis.

“I hope there’s no pandemic in the rest of our lives,” he said before adding, “but whenever there’s a crisis, [that investment should] make sure that state governments across the country are ready to deal with it.”

UI fraud has represented both a technological and cybersecurity challenge for SLGs and one that had gone under the radar for states before the pandemic.

“There’s nothing like a good emergency to highlight where all of your risks turned into issues,” Watson said during the cybersecurity panel discussion at the State Tech Vision event. “The one thing that was reinforced really heavily with the pandemic and the response is that cybersecurity always has to be part of the picture and integrated into what we’re doing,” Watson said.

It’s a need that Ricker said existed before the pandemic and was prioritized as funding came in from the COVID-19 relief bills.

“I think we all certainly saw a real ramp-up in cyber actors taking advantage of opportunities, particularly around all of the funding that was flowing over the last couple of years,” Ricker said on the cybersecurity panel.

“So, for us, I think, in particular, it really reinforced what we have been talking about with our business partners for many years,” she added. “It’s been a top priority of CIOs for 10 years. It certainly has been for the state of Illinois, and it was prior to the pandemic.”

Watson said the need for better cybersecurity to be integrated across operations showed not only in fraudulent UI attempts but also elsewhere across SLGs.

“We saw that with the large amounts of fraud attempts, as mentioned, on the Unemployment Insurance activities,” Watson said. “We saw that with shifts in the actors trying to target our users at home versus in the workplace. What that means and what that continually highlights is that whenever there’s a large shift in technology – strategy or approach – whatever it is, and whatever it’s in response to, you need to have cyber at the table to adjust for it.”

To hear the rest of the cybersecurity and digital services panels, along with Rep. Byers’ keynote, sign up for MeriTalk’s State Tech Vision to watch on-demand.

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