CDT's Nichols Sees Gains Since State Shift to Telework

After the shift to remote work last spring due to the COVID pandemic, California state agencies are adapting — and will continue to do so, thanks to technology, said state Deputy Chief Information Officer Russ Nichols.

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Transitioning the workforce to teleworking last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed many offices, brought some predictable changes to the state government workforce: more laptops, flexible hours where practical and a shift from in-person meetings to virtual ones.

But it also highlighted some ground that the state has had to make up in the ensuing months. That was the message Tuesday during a virtual roundtable which featured a California representative — Russ Nichols, state deputy chief information officer and chief deputy director of the California Department of Technology (CDT) — and a handful of technology leaders from other states as well.
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“Prior to the pandemic, there was conversation around remote work and telework and different mechanisms to provide government services, but there really wasn’t much being done; it was very spotty,” Nichols said in the Bloomberg Live roundtable. “Our governor has taken a very strong stance on it as we come out of the pandemic. His goal is to have 75 percent of the state workforce that can telework to continue to telework. So we’re actually reducing physical footprint in our buildings around the state and have already executed some budget reductions to help put that process on the fast track. Our IT organizations are working vigorously trying to set that up, figure out the new policies and procedures that go with that with our labor organizations — and to redefine the state services that we provide so that we can allow that remote workforce to work from where they are.”

Nichols is an award-winning veteran of state service, having served as chief information officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation before being named to his current role in February by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Before serving in CDCR, Nichols worked in the State Controller’s Office and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, so he’s no stranger to overseeing technology for large agencies.

Before the pandemic struck last spring, Nichols said, “We did have a number of things in place, but we had to scale them dramatically. We had our finger in the pool for telework. We set up some technology to do virtual desktops or remote access, but we had to vastly expand that — and frankly, implement a lot of the services that go around it to ensure security.” For example, he said, multifactor authentication was not used consistently across state agencies.

“It’s not one size fits all — we had to look at the use cases, organization by organization, and make sure we stood up tools that would allow them to be successful in that type of environment, so anything from legislative hearings to ‘How do I renew my driver’s license?’ — all of those processes had to be evaluated.”

Nichols said the focus on the user experience “is greatly escalated compared to the way it was a year ago when we looked at designing government services, but it’s also brought some challenges, and we need to bring some new skill sets and some new tools to the table in order to be able to do that. We’ve got to fundamentally look at providing services differently so that people don’t have to come stand in the lobby of a state office. … How do we collapse that process, where we meet them where they are when they need that service?"

Security will always be a challenge in providing remote government services, he said.

“It really takes some different thinking and processes, and some of those … services when you’re applying for benefits, we absolutely have to prove who that person is. In person that’s much easier, when someone can show you a document — a passport, a driver’s license, a Real ID, something along those lines. Doing that in a virtual environment is a much different challenge, and I think a lot of jurisdictions are struggling with that and trying to quickly navigate that process to bring up a service that a year ago we really either hadn’t thought about or was fairly immature.”

Nichols sees good things on the horizon for digital services.

“There will be more and more technology, so as we develop these tools that allow us to do it virtually, we can use AI (artificial intelligence) or just technology enhancements to make sure that we’re meeting folks who have ADA (Americans With Disabilities) needs, whether it’s adaptations on the screen or language conversions or things along those lines. And I think a lot of organizations forget that step up front, and it’s a bolt-on as a second step. And so, using those tools, we can bring that to bear and start to get into the norm of designing that as a digital transaction first that is adaptive to screen readers or translators, or whatever it might be. … Again, it’s focusing on meeting the client where they are in a manner that meets their needs to consume a service.”

The cloud is a constant talking point in government, Nichols noted — but he said there’s nuance.

“I like the terminology of ‘cloud smart.’ A lot of organizations have gone to cloud-first or cloud-only, and it’s not always the right answer. But even beyond the technology layer, a piece that I think we all realize we’re struggling with … on budgets and how things are approved, saying that we’re going to go to a cloud provider as the best solution is only part of the answer. It takes us 18 months to get there because of budget cycles or bureaucracy on project approvals or things like that, and you’re losing some of the efficiency of going to that platform that already exists. So the technology absolutely is an accelerant that helps with that, but then we’ve got to look inwardly and make sure we’ve got the skill sets and the processes that support making that transition, so that we’re basically not jumping off a cliff as we try to do it.”

Although the dispersal of the workforce was sudden and unforeseen in both breadth and duration, Nichols said, some good has emerged.

“Across the entire technology community, we got a real lesson in disaster recovery that maybe we had planned for, but nobody anticipated it being this big or this long. … One of the pieces that we probably all had to figure out was how we bring in our partners and our supporting vendors quickly to help solve those problems. Our normal bureaucratic procurement processes are very, very long and drawn out, and we had to figure out how to do things in days, not weeks or months, and I think we’re all very successful at that.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done across all of our departments and our centralized department to pull that off.”

The full webinar, “The CIO Exchange: Transforming Government Workspaces,” may be viewed on demand.
Dennis Noone is Managing Editor of Techwire. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in the Northern California foothills.