Under Pressure: What It Means to Be a City or County CIO Today

Local governments are on the front lines of the response to COVID-19, providing health services and other essential assistance to the public. Information technology professionals have been called upon to help other departments and colleagues maintain the delivery of programs.

Over the years many city and county CIOs have struggled to be part of the enterprise-wide strategic planning process as opposed to being relegated to what was viewed as the chief infrastructure officer – maintaining basic operations and “keeping the lights on.”

During the current COVID-19 crisis, today’s CIO has moved to the forefront and has become essential and appreciated. For the most part no Disaster Recovery (DR) Plan envisioned a prolonged physical government shut down for more than a few days or a week or two at best. Today, it’s different.

CIOs have had to work around the clock to support a massive telework force while still maintaining basic operations. They have had to bend backwards to secure more broadband resources – both fixed and wireless. They had to scramble to secure more laptops, VPN licenses, headsets USB cameras and work around business processes that did not immediately lend themselves to an online only environment. Beginning in February, communities across the U.S. began to feel the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local governments are on the front lines of the response, providing health services and other essential assistance to the public. Information technology professionals have been called upon to help other departments and colleagues maintain the delivery of programs, for example, enabling colleagues to work from home (many for the first time) while dealing with a stressful and changing environment.

Over the past 45 days, we have interviewed numerous CIOs to better understand and how local government IT is responding to this crisis.

Realizing that a more formal/research-oriented view of local government IT operations was needed, PTI created a brief online survey asking local government CIOs to share their experiences and insights in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to gauge what local government IT is dealing with now, and how it is bracing for the future.

Between April 2-8, PTI contacted approximately 2,000 local government technology directors requesting that they participate in a short survey. A total of 172 city and county IT executives responded. I would like to thank these leaders for taking the time to share their insights.

While this research focuses on IT operations and management during the COVID-19 crisis, we felt it important to explore the governmentwide technology response and issues as well related to the pandemic.

The number of responses surprised us.  It was comforting, and optimistic, to see how local governments are willing to share their lessons learned with each other, with the hope that we, as a community of local government officials, can be better prepared for future crises that will undoubtedly impact our communities.

We found that many CIOs are an office of but one and felt the full weight of the entire crisis where delegation was a luxury not an option. We also learned of stories of the vendor community stepping forward with donated equipment, expanded user licenses, and in some cases filled in as voluntary staff. They wrestled with new challenges of obtaining the necessary software to accept electronic signatures and securing electronic certified mail workarounds. They quickly had to activate collaborative software such as Microsoft Teams and created Slack channels. They had to find and distribute when possible mobile hotspots – many donated from the major carriers as further evidence of vendor cooperation.

CIOs have reported they had to dramatically expand their video conferencing capabilities not only in support of internal communication channels but in many cases create entirely new pathways to help citizens too. Just three weeks ago most offices were open, and citizens could conduct their business as usual. Today CIOs struggle to provide the necessary support to have virtual open meetings as well as develop ingenious workarounds for online services that were once limited to in-person transactions only.

Innovation and the use of emerging technologies have now been added to the CIO’s toolbox. CIOs have risen to become forward-thinking problem solvers, seeking new ways to support the local government enterprise.  They have risen to the challenge in amazing ways and their efforts are being noticed and much appreciated.

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