Rethinking state and local government: Three experts weigh in

To bolster their security, improve services, and tackle other challenges, governments need to embrace the cloud, three former public sector leaders say.

Mark Jackley | January 15, 2024

If you ask state and local government experts to name their top priorities, they’ll recite a familiar list that includes bolstering cybersecurity, finding and retaining skilled people, and improving citizen services. When we asked three former public sector leaders to weigh in, two of them also gravitated to a more fundamental challenge.

“State and local leaders are mostly limited by vision, not budgets or regulations,” says Sarjoo Shah, former CIO of Oklahoma’s Health and Human Services Agencies and now executive director of public health services at Oracle.

Shah’s view is shared by Bob Nevins, former CIO of the Massachusetts Health Connector and now a state and local government specialist with Oracle. “People expect government to have the same great customer service as their favorite brands,” Nevins says. “To provide that, state and local agencies need to get creative.”

Alexandria Smith, a former chief HR officer for the City of Memphis, Tennessee, and now a public sector HR strategy adviser with Oracle, has a different perspective. “I believe the vision and commitment are there, but needs outweigh capacity due to limited resources, mostly people and funding,” Smith says.

All three agree that adopting and expanding use of cloud technologies is a key to success, guided by careful planning and transparent financial practices. They also agree that the post-pandemic era is a chance to reimagine and reenergize public services. (Download the Oracle ebook: Rethink State and Local Government: 6 Priorities to Deliver on Now for more on how governments are tackling their biggest challenges.)

New approaches to talent management

We asked each of our experts how governments can go about attracting top talent. While hiring has rebounded in 2023, tens of thousands of state and local government jobs remain vacant.

One way governments can attract talented people, Shah says, is by upgrading their IT infrastructure, moving applications to the cloud, and adopting newer technologies such as AI, machine learning, and blockchain. “Younger applicants in particular need that kind of expertise to move ahead in their careers,” he says. “If you combine these opportunities with a sense of public mission, that employees can make a positive difference, you’re offering something other employers can’t match.”

Smith has studied exit interviews and employee surveys to learn why people stay or go. ‘’Government employees leave due to work culture, such as inflexible scheduling or feeling they’re not respected, and a lack of career growth and pay,” she says. 62% of states have increased pay and 90% now offer remote or hybrid work, according to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

Meeting growing cybersecurity demands

Since 2021 the federal government has invested billions of dollars, including an additional $374.9 million this year, to help state and local governments enhance cybersecurity. We asked our experts about the best ways to spend that money.

Nevins says the cloud is key. “When you move applications to the cloud, you partner with third parties that invest heavily in security,” he notes. “Your in-house data center is difficult to secure—it grows in response to business needs and becomes more and more complex. It’s a constant challenge to keep pace with cyberthreats. In that case, if you’re not focusing 100% of your efforts on security, you’re going to miss some things.”

People expect government to have the same great customer service as their favorite brands. To provide that, state and local agencies need to get creative.”

Bob Nevins Industry Executive Director, Health and Human Services, Oracle

Nevins acknowledges that government CIOs sometimes are reluctant to part with their on-premises infrastructure and applications, for fear of losing control. But the tide is turning. “More state governments are getting out of the data center business, and improved security is one reason,” he says. “I think you’ll see state CIOs requiring cloud adoption.”

Shah says keeping data in-house fosters a “false sense of security. With a cloud platform, security is built in, not bolted on. It’s a comforter, not a quilt.”

Employee training is also critical. Consider that 69% of state and local governments have been hit with a ransomware attack, according to a 2023 study by security vendor Sophos, with attackers demanding an average of $2 million. Because these attacks typically are delivered through phishing emails and other scams, “it takes only one untrained employee to put the entire organization at risk,” Shah says. “Security awareness is better than it was five years ago, but it needs to be a top priority when you plan and budget. Unfortunately, security training is sometimes the first program to go when governments cut costs.”

For more than a decade, governments have been moving public services online, letting businesses and individuals renew licenses and permits, pay fees, report problems, and apply for different types of benefits and assistance. We asked our experts: What’s the next step for governments to take with these services, besides offering citizens more convenience?

“Besides building dashboards that make it easier to use services, you need analytics to understand how you can improve them,” Smith says.

Shah agrees: “Predictive analytics lets you measure citizen sentiment to understand how well you’re doing. Governments have a monopoly on the services they offer, which can mean less incentive to raise their game.”

Reimagining public services online

Nevins, the former Massachusetts agency CIO, says online services make it easier to improve process efficiencies, “even when there was an uptick in fraud, which we were able to detect and address. By exposing unnecessary steps, we determined eligibility and delivered services faster.”

State and local governments have made substantial technology improvements, but obstacles remain. We asked our experts to identify the biggest obstacles to their digital progress.

“Legacy systems are still an obstacle,” Shah says. “They simply don’t lend themselves to accessibility and convenience. Everything is processed overnight and you have to wait until the next day to get the latest data. That’s too slow and inefficient in an age when everyone, especially citizens, wants to see instant results.”

He concedes that some in government question the benefits of going digital, wondering, for example, if application latency will offset other performance gains. “Agencies should conduct a true total cost of ownership study, based on metrics they value the most, before they make large investments in digitalization,” Shah says. “This allows CIOs to get buy-in from CFOs and other stakeholders, helping them plan what to purchase and how to fund it.”

Government’s job hasn’t really changed, Nevins says, but public expectations have grown while budgets have plateaued or shrunk. Whether managing business licensing, taxation, or public safety, “everyone in the sector knows they need to do more with less,” he says, thus the strong case for automation and self-service.

As state and local governments invest in new services, technologies, and infrastructure, they must be financially transparent. We asked our experts to expand on this challenge.

“It’s not just regulators who want to see financial records,” Smith says. “Labor unions, city councils and legislatures, employees, and of course citizens want to know how money is spent. And vendors need information as a part of the public procurement process.” Since the pandemic, states and localities have benefited from trillions of dollars in federal aid, creating added pressure to share financial information with the public.

Shah explains that funding processes complicate transparency. “Government programs are funded by various sources using different formulas,” he notes. “For instance, the federal government pays 90% of Medicaid costs, with states paying 10%. Child welfare costs are split fifty-fifty by Washington and states. A state can easily have 150 agencies. It’s easy to see how finances are inherently complicated.”

Legacy systems can’t keep up. Shah gives the example of an old financial platform Oklahoma used when he served as CIO for the state’s health and human services agencies. “There was a massive spreadsheet with over 200 columns that took five minutes to load,” he says. “Managing it was literally someone’s full-time job.”

The latest cloud-based applications simplify financial reporting and analysis, Nevins notes. “You no longer need an advanced degree in database management,” he says. “Technology blurs the lines between IT and finance. Finance people are now much more tech-savvy, and IT people have a better grasp of how the numbers work. With fewer technical barriers, open government is easier.”

Sources: Sophos, The State of Ransomware in State and Local Government 2023; Center for Digital Government, Digital Cities, Counties and States Survey 2022

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