State CIOs Discuss Initiatives, Telework Outcomes, Budget Impact on IT

California's Fiscal Year 2020-2021 budget, which the Legislature must approve by June 15, is already bringing bad news to IT, but could spell opportunity in telework and elsewhere, two state department CIOs said during a Techwire Virtual Industry Briefing.

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Technology leaders at two high-contact state departments discussed telework amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and the crisis’s impact to ongoing IT initiatives, on Tuesday at a Techwire Virtual Industry Briefing.

In a conversation with Alan Cox, e.Republic* executive vice president and Techwire publisher, Chad Crowe, chief information officer at the California Department of Human Resources (CalHR), and Jon Kirkham, California Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) CIO, said the swift transition to remote work has demanded a considerable focus – and talked about what the COVID-related $54.3 billion state budget shortfall could mean for tech. Among the takeaways:

• Crowe said his shop handles IT for CalHR, which has 320 employees, as well as for the State Personnel Board, which has around 67 employees. CalHR’s other duties include overseeing hiring and layoffs; all benefits for state employees except health care; and representing Gov. Gavin Newsom in labor negotiations with employee unions. The department also administers the state job sites jobs.ca.gov and calcareers.ca.gov – and, on the back end, the Examination Certification Online System (ECOS). Both are “in-house, custom-built solutions” used by all state departments and getting between 500,000 and 1 million monthly visitors, Crowe said, noting both “are in dev-ops constantly.” CalHR receives 175,000 job applications per month and typically has 3,000 to 3,500 jobs posted on its site; ECOS, meanwhile, has 10,000 to 15,000 hiring and HR managers using it behind the scenes.

• The department’s "first project,” Crowe said, was a learning management system (LMS) sharing data between CalHR’s centralized system housed at CDT and third-party systems like Cornerstone and Blackboard. Now, “newly ID'd” employee records are pulled daily and matched with system logins, enabling training data to follow employees throughout their state careers. CalHR also recently completed a discrimination complaint tracking system on Salesforce that went live statewide in January. But a bigger endeavor is enterprise HR – centralized employee records for the whole state, Crowe said. The agency is working on this with partners including the California Government Operations Agency and the California Department of Technology (CDT).

CalHR is also looking into additional technologies like chatbots. And, Crowe said: “We’re looking at an additional online exam system that sits in between ECOS and CalCareers, that does some exam functions … .” The department is also interested in creating a portal that will give employees more direct access to their records.

• DOR assists residents with disabilities, with the goal of “employment, independence and equality for all Californians with disabilities,” Kirkham said. It fields around 1,900 employees across 85 state offices – with around 1,300 at its central Sacramento address. Around 530 DOR staffers “report having a disability,” the CIO said, adding that technologies like screen readers or voice-over devices that read the contents of a computer screen are critical for consumers and employees. DOR recently worked with AT&T to upgrade telephones with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), and its IT staff continues working to move the department off paper – a task whose importance has been highlighted by COVID-19.

• Pre-COVID, DOR was underway on a Web portal for consumers and vendors and a portal that will let the department “exchange information with our consumers electronically,” Kirkham said, adding: “To go along with that, we’ve also been augmenting our broadband and Wi-Fi” across all 85 offices – to make it easier to work with visitors, and allow them to use their own devices. The department is also putting an employee management system in place internally, and is looking at it “for some of the services that we provide to our consumers and the training that we provide for them.” DOR has also been focusing on electronic signature capabilities – another area given a deeper significance by the crisis. These, the CIO said, are “big moves forward for us,” indicating that existing solutions that haven’t accounted for assistive technologies needed by the disabled have been a challenge for the department, which employs many people with disabilities.

“And so there are reasons that we have lagged behind in some of the technologies that we’ve been rolling out and some of the solutions,” Kirkham said. He made a fervent request to vendors to “get people who use assisted technologies involved at the beginning so the design can be accessible from the start,” and emphasized that “accessible design is good design.”

• Both agencies have leaned into telework, but the CIOs said making employees remote has highlighted basic needs such as lack of home Internet or devices, along with more complex issues. At DOR, where around 1,200 are now working remotely, that transition highlighted the dependence on “brick-and-mortar” locations and the need to plan further into the future. Kirkham predicted employees may return to working remote two to three days a week, but said: “The door’s been opened and people have walked through it, and I think that we’re definitely not going back to telework just being a flexible work option.”

Working together has been key to the departments’ telework strategies. While CalHR is a longtime SharePoint user, a key challenge for the future will be unifying in-house and remote staff through a collaboration suite like a Zoom Room or a Webex Room. DOR recently stood up Microsoft Teams and is working with CDT and the Office of Technology Services (OTech) on adding broadband to its offices. DOR is also working with Microsoft to improve the performance of tools for disabled users, Kirkham said, pointing out that the video quality of collaboration suites comes under scrutiny when they’re used by disabled people, whose experience may be severely impacted by skips or latency. He highlighted the value of multi-factor authentication as a weapon against cybercriminals; Crowe said CalHR offers weekly training sessions and has worked hard to teach employees how to guard against phishing and whaling attempts.

• With just more than 10 days before the Legislature must approve a state budget amid a historic economic downturn, both CIOs acknowledged the likely impact to state spending. Kirkham said “we must be strategic about where we invest,” adding: “I don’t necessarily think that the IT investment decreases, but I do think that what we spend on will be a lot more scrutinized and be certainly strategic with a goal towards virtual workspaces and being able to work from wherever you are.” It could also present opportunities to “move things forward and modernize,” he said, pointing out there’s “nothing like an emergency situation to replace organizational change management.”

Crowe said the economic crunch is “definitely going to affect the work,” adding: “The money that we did have is shifted towards telework needs.” It was all on CalHR’s roadmap, the CIO said, including migrating to the cloud, doing more automation and getting off paper. But making a 5 percent cut again, as officials had to do during the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration, will definitely be felt. “I have several projects now on hold because of the budget, so it is affecting some of our projects to automate and cover opportunities -- but again there’s opportunities in other places,” Crowe said. “I do think that a lot of times, IT gets cut first because it’s simple, it’s easy to see, but it’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

*e.Republic is the parent company of Techwire.

Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Techwire.