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CIO: Cloud Is Key to Telework for CHP amid Pandemic

Chief Scott Howland told a Techwire audience that while speeders are speeding faster than ever, the CHP's technology is proceeding apace to the cloud.

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The California Highway Patrol’s chief information officer says he’s facing many of the same pandemic-related challenges as other IT leaders in the public and private sectors, but he also sees an upside in the forced adaptation to telework and other workplace changes.

When the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic prompted shelter-in-place orders in mid-March, said Chief Scott Howland, one immediate change the agency made was to push more workflow to the cloud. Howland spoke Friday during a Techwire virtual briefing that was moderated by Alan Cox, executive vice president of e.Republic, parent of Techwire, Government Technology and Governing.

“Our first issue was file access,” Howland said. “Luckily, we were well-configured and had the technology, and it was just a matter of a little file-keeping to ensure that we’ve got the right files on our already-owned and -configured collaboration platforms and cloud apps.”

Howland said about 95 percent of his IT staff is now working remotely.

“It has allowed us to take a lot of internal resources that we’ve had and really push it out so folks can access them from home,” he said. “You think about things like your internal website, where you’ve got a lot of policy and forms and other things that folks interact with on a daily basis. … How do they do that at home, ultimately? We were able to push a number of things up to the cloud that have allowed seamless and secure access to that, that were really, really good from that standpoint.”

Patrol officers are still cruising the state’s highways, he said, and their main outward difference in protocol may appear to be wearing face masks while interacting with the public. But behind the scenes, the changes have been major.

“That has been the hardest part -- transitioning some of our workflows to a more digital approach. It’s also been a great opportunity for us to adjust, re-evaluate and ultimately end up with a much better, more effective workflow that will serve us much better in the future. … Ultimately, we’ll be much more effective.”

Another big shift from a tech standpoint has been in officers’ court appearances.

“As my staff was focused on helping our support staff move to telework and everything else, my phone started ringing from my field divisions and they said, ‘Hey, our county court wants to move to video conferencing.’ And so ultimately, how do we do that? It’s been am amazing process as courts have tried to figure out how we keep business going.”

Howland said the agency has had to pause some projects since the staff began teleworking, and there was some staff resistance to using new online tools, “but they now love them, amazingly enough.”

Another big change has been in vendor relations.

“Sometimes on projects you struggle with, ‘Hey, we need to make sure our vendors are onsite enough.’ We’ve pivoted and shifted, and now we’re saying we don’t want vendors onsite at all. … We’ve got a number of projects in our dispatch centers, whether it’s radio consoles or workstations for our CAD system – those things that require staff to travel, and show up at facilities, and also to have vendors come and do their portions of installs, and that has all been locked out, because we’re making sure we’re prioritizing the health and safety of our employees to ensure that we don’t have an outbreak in a dispatch center.”

Howland emphasized that for state government, cybersecurity remains a priority.

“I’ve been really impressed across the state enterprise with the collaboration and the focus on security. For example, as part of the State Operations Center, as far as the pandemic, there’s a cybersecurity task force that’s really focused on ensuring we have cybersecurity during this emergency. We’re looking at how phishing campaigns are really focused on COVID-19 and trying to take advantage of that. We’re aware of the changes that we’ve made within our posture and ensure that we’re diligent from that standpoint.”

Howland cited a maxim by author and professor Clayton Christiansen: Disruptive innovations are not breakthrough technologies that make good products better; rather, they’re innovations that make products and services more accessible and affordable, thereby making them more available to a larger population.

“Across the state enterprise,” Howland said, “not just in the CHP, we have seen a tremendous amount of technology implementation that normally would take weeks, months, or even longer done in days. Traditional workflows have really been re-evaluated from the standpoint of understanding how different we can do work, and many of those are more effective and more efficient. …

“And so, in the midst of a pandemic, we’re seeing some great benefits to the public in how we deliver government that I think are really going to continue beyond our current emergency. It’ll be exciting to see from the standpoint of those things that we’ve been forced to do that really end up being a huge benefit because of efficiency and effectiveness and the use of technology.”

Howland said the support he’s received from the tech community has been “amazing.”

“As California went to shelter in place, as we started teleworking practically overnight, the tech community has been phenomenal in their willingness to provide support, to provide innovative solutions, and just to be there,” Howland said. “I was impressed with the number of offers I received from our regular vendors, folks that I’m doing business with currently, as well as folks that I don’t, saying, ‘How can we help?’ It has been just amazing to be a recipient of that. What do you need? We are here for you. I’m not the only CIO that has experienced that – that was across the state enterprise. We are so appreciative to have the support that we have.”

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.