MEMOS FOR A TECH TRANSITION

Building State Digital Capacity in the First 200 Days

Logo — Tech Talent Project
Logo: New America
Logo: Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation
Logo: American Enterprise Institute

Download a combined, printable version of the memos

Co-chair Letter

The events of the last three years have revealed opportunities for governments at every level to ensure that they are better serving the public. Modern technology offers a tantalizing but often bewildering array of tools that states can use to translate policy goals into valuable, functioning programs. 

Tech Talent Project has partnered with American Enterprise Institute, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University and New America to release a series of memos to help states make quick, meaningful progress in building technical capacity while avoiding past pitfalls.

Demand for government services to families, businesses and communities during the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented. In the first year alone, an estimated 46 million people claimed unemployment benefits[1], 93% of households with school-age children used remote learning[2], and Medicaid enrollment jumped more than 20%[3]. As the technical systems supporting some of these programs buckled, states struggled under increased administrative burdens and the need to serve huge numbers of people virtually. 

Since March 2020, the federal government has made more than $750 billion available to state and local governments to ease the economic damage suffered across the country.[4], [5], [6], [7] While some states quickly took advantage of this money, many are still deciding where to invest it to strengthen service delivery and prevent future technology failures. This moment represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve interaction between states and their constituents.

Luckily, there are over a decade of best practices that states can learn from. We have written nine memos to share these best practices. Four focus on how states can maximize foundational tools such as tech talent, data practices, procurement processes and cybersecurity to strengthen programs and provide human-centered services to residents. Five memos speak to critical program areas where these best practices could be implemented: broadband access, child welfare, education data systems, safety net program coordination, and unemployment insurance.

How to use these memos:

  • FOR GOVERNORS OFFICES: Each memo outlines specific, actionable opportunities to build momentum in the first 200 days of 2023, including hiring for specific senior-level positions that require technical expertise. We include a two-page executive summary of all memos and a list of key roles.

  • FOR AGENCY LEADERS: Each memo summarizes opportunities to deliver services well using technology and avoid problems with it. They provide an overview of the subject area and outline key best practices for delivering services effectively.

We are deeply grateful to the nearly 140 nonprofit, government and technical leaders who contributed to this project. We all benefit from the tireless efforts of people who are passionate about good government, regardless of their party affiliation or policy positions.

Sincerely,

Cecilia Muñoz

Former Assistant to the President and Director, White House Domestic Policy Council

President Barack Obama

Domestic Policy 2012-2017

John Bailey

Former Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy

President George W. Bush

Domestic Policy 2007-2009

SIX KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE TECHNOLOGY TRANSITION MEMOS

Tech Talent Project has partnered with American Enterprise Institute, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University and New America to bring together nearly 140 government, industry and nonprofit leaders to outline the key technology opportunities facing states in 2023.

These memos focus on how states can improve foundational tools that enable technology delivery, such as talent acquisition, procurement processes, data practices and cybersecurity. They also address five key program areas where states can leverage federal dollars to transform the constituent experience: broadband access, child welfare, education data systems, safety net program coordination, and unemployment insurance. Below are six key takeaways. 


1. FEDERAL DOLLARS CREATE A TIMELY OPPORTUNITY FOR SUCCESS OR FAILURE

From $65 billion for broadband expansion to $1 billion for cybersecurity, states have an unprecedented amount of federal resources to spend on technology upgrades. While some of the money has already been allocated, many states are still deciding how and where to invest. If states spend these dollars in traditional ways — large contracts, with a single technology vendor, over multiple years — the projects are unlikely to succeed. There are proven best practices that states can use to deliver modern technology effectively. States can leverage the best practices, tools, resources and organizations outlined in these memos to deliver better services now, and to make institutional changes that will pay dividends into the future. 


2. STATES NEED LEADERS WITH MODERN TECHNICAL EXPERIENCE FROM DAY ONE

States cannot deliver 21st-century government services without the technical talent to build and use modern systems effectively. Many governments rely heavily on contractors to fill the tech talent gap, but this can be risky. While government can contract with companies to build and operate technology, they cannot outsource accountability for its success or failure. States need skilled internal technical leaders to oversee vendors and ensure that online systems work for the people who use them.

To do this, states must recruit and retain technical talent. Yet many count themselves out, assuming they can’t hire without matching private sector salaries. It is possible for government to recruit and retain top technologists who are eager to improve people’s lives at scale, but only by employing best practice strategies and processes for hiring. States can make progress in early 2023 by appointing and empowering modern technical leaders, investing in digital services capacity, laying the groundwork for modern hiring practices, and building pathways for early and mid-career technologists into government.


3. PROCUREMENT PRACTICES CAN MAKE OR BREAK A TECHNOLOGY PROJECT’S SUCCESS

State and local governments pay millions to contractors each year for goods and services that keep their agencies running. The technology that vendors build, helps deliver essential services and shapes whether residents think their government is doing a good job. This means that a failure of procurement — the processes, policies and people behind all this spending — can disrupt services for millions and derail an administration’s ability to deliver its priorities.  

One reason many government technology procurements fail is states’ antiquated practices and strategies. Agencies use the same processes to procure a constantly evolving, $100 million software system that they would use to buy a bus that costs less than $500,000. No state can radically transform its procurement processes in six months, but they can set new expectations and start making changes. Early in 2023, states can improve rules for the procurement of custom software, build teams with the skills and support to succeed, and conduct a review of ongoing and upcoming large-dollar software procurements.


4. BUILD ACCESS TO SECURE, HIGH-QUALITY DATA TO MAKE INFORMED POLICY DECISIONS AND DELIVER SERVICES THAT WORK

When the pandemic began, every state began publishing figures on cases, testing and vaccination rates. Governors across the country began presenting data in their daily press conferences and using data to make decisions in real time. There’s no reason states can’t apply this approach to other critical issues.

Data is a powerful tool that states can use to answer critical policy questions, make operations more effective and increase trust in government. While building modern data infrastructure is the work of years, not months, states can make meaningful progress in early 2023 by closely aligning their data efforts with key policy priorities in the state. In these areas, officials can gain early momentum by building a team of experts in critical areas, prioritizing data-driven decision-making at all levels, focusing on specific problems while building long-term data projects, and investing in data quality and protection.


5. CYBERSECURITY MUST BE A CONSISTENT STATE PRIORITY

State governments have worked for more than a decade to improve their cybersecurity readiness, in partnership with federal authorities for national security. Yet threats persist. Governments must protect their ever-expanding online systems from hacking, ransomware and other threats. 

In the face of increasing cyberattacks, governments — especially local and tribal governments — will have to compete with other public and private sector employers for technical expertise. The federal government is providing $1 billion in cybersecurity grants for state and local governments in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. States can use these funds to better understand their current statewide cybersecurity strategy, build their cybersecurity workforce, launch relevant statewide initiatives and actively prepare for cyberattacks.


6. SMALL WINS AND HUMAN-CENTERED APPROACHES TO TECHNOLOGY AND OPERATIONAL IMPROVEMENTS ARE MORE LIKELY TO SUCCEED

A human-centered approach to technology prioritizes the experience of the people using state programs and systems. This means investing resources in understanding what it is like to apply for benefits and where people are getting stuck. States that take the time to talk to the constituents they serve about their experience and use this information to build a technology roadmap are more likely to succeed. 

A state’s chances of delivering something of value increases when they prioritize solving real customer problems. Starting small can help a state reduce risk and deliver small but meaningful wins that staff and customers can quickly appreciate. This could include digitizing paper forms, finding new data-sharing opportunities across programs or exploring new ways to communicate with program beneficiaries.

SUMMARY OF KEY ROLES

Chief Information Officer: Chief information officers are often the highest-ranking technical decision-maker for a state or agency. They are typically accountable for all technical capabilities within a state, including customer-facing software applications, data storage strategy and email systems for staff.

Chief Technology Officer: Chief technology officers most often act as the lead technical strategists for the government. They’re most effective when they engage in improving technology that drives the customer experience.

Chief Data Officer: Chief data officers drive data strategy, manage data assets and build access to the accurate and secure data that internal stakeholders need to do their jobs.

Chief People Officer: Chief people officers are transformative leaders who focus on recruiting a modern technical workforce and making state government a place where technologists want to work and grow.

Chief Information Security Officer: Chief information security officers oversee all aspects of cybersecurity and typically advise the state chief information officer and executive leadership on cybersecurity risk.

Chief Procurement Officer: Chief procurement officers possess a deep familiarity with the complex practices and policies that govern the way states purchase technology and technology services. These experts are invaluable partners in efforts to incorporate innovative methods and steer government purchasing toward improved outcomes. 

Chief Customer Experience Officer (Safety Net Program Integration): Chief customer experience officers are executive leaders who focus on enhancing customer experience and improving programs and services for users at all stages.

State Broadband Director (Broadband): Broadband director roles are critical to effectively improving a state’s connectivity. They are responsible for developing the state’s vision, setting strategy and building strong relationships with key stakeholders. 

Broadband Data Director (Broadband): Broadband data directors can ensure that internal and external stakeholders have the information they need to make decisions and implement them effectively. Within the state broadband office they can drive data strategy, manage data assets, ensure strong oversight of data and data privacy, and build timely access to accurate, secure and high-quality data for decision making. 

Digital Equity Director (Broadband): State digital equity directors can play a key role in developing relationships with communities and businesses reliant on strong broadband access, understanding community needs, and developing partnerships and projects to shrink the digital divide. Ideally they are a partner to the state’s broadband director.

State Director of Transition (Child Welfare):  Directors of transition could play an invaluable role in helping design technology that better serves older youth in the foster care system in a range of ways, from child welfare to employment and economic opportunity.

Chief Privacy Officer (Education): In education agencies, chief privacy officers are responsible for developing strategies to safeguard student data, establishing cultures of respect and transparency, and coordinating among key actors. This includes school district administrators, teachers, parents, and privacy advocates.