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State and local government technology revs digital services

Agencies, in a bid to quickly roll out citizen services, rely on a combination of chatbots, upgraded networks, no-code/low-code technology and cloud computing.

Perennially cash-strapped statehouses and town halls aren't typically associated with rapid technology adoption, but the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their outlook.

Indeed, state and local governments are rolling out digital services for citizens, bolstering security to protect newly digitalized resources and using technology such as low-code/no-code to accelerate project timelines. Government agencies also tackle long-deferred infrastructure upgrades and pursue cloud-based offerings. SaaS, in particular, is on the rise. COVID-19's restrictions on in-person services provide the impetus for state and local government technology spending. And the federal government's economic stimulus measures provide a significant part of the funding.

"The 2021 State CIO Survey" illustrates how the pandemic has altered the demand for technology. Ninety-four percent of the respondents cited COVID-19 as dramatically or somewhat accelerating citizen demand for digital government services. The National Association of State CIOs, Grant Thornton and CompTIA collaborated on the survey and resulting report.

Chatbots, voicebots lead emerging technologies

As for specific technologies, the pandemic sped up the adoption of chatbots for online citizen services and voicebots for call center interactions, according to the report.

Graeme FinleyGraeme Finley

"A lot of it was a reaction to huge volume increase," said Graeme Finley, managing director with Grant Thornton's Public Sector practice, which provides digital transformation and business application strategy services.

State contact centers, for example, became overwhelmed with unemployment insurance claims spiking, Finley said. The use of chatbots and voicebots for automating response to routine inquires freed human staff to handle more complex issues.

It's two sides of the coin. You expose services in a digital manner and, at the same time, figure out how to reduce the risk associated with that.
Graeme FinleyManaging director, Grant Thornton, Public Sector practice

The use of such technologies seems likely to persist beyond the initial emergency. Government agencies, having found bots work and provide some scalability, now look for more opportunities to deploy them, Finley said. In addition, the arrival of digital services creates an expectation among citizens and drives additional demand, he noted.

State CIOs ranked chatbots and voicebots as No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, among the emerging technologies that see accelerated adoption. Automated fraud detection ranked second on that list. Finley said he sees the growth in digital services closely related to the need for improved fraud detection.

"It's two sides of the coin," he said. "You expose services in a digital manner and, at the same time, figure out how to reduce the risk associated with that. You rachet up both sides of the technology stack."

Mike RileyMike Riley

Security, infrastructure upgrades get funding

Enhanced security was also a motivation for the town of Apple Valley, Calif. The town's data center technology, a decade old, left it vulnerable to ransomware attacks. Smaller towns attract cyber attackers since they know those entities typically lack the budget and personnel to provide adequate protection, said Mike Riley, U.S. vice president of healthcare and GovEd sales at Logicalis, an MSP with U.S. headquarters in New York.

Apple Valley brought on Logicalis for a technology refresh. The initial phase of the project included a hyper-converged infrastructure deployment -- HPE's Nimble Storage dHCI -- and the use of Veeam for backup and disaster recovery. The next phase called for a phone system and networking refresh. The pandemic caused a shift to remote work, which put higher demands on the town's infrastructure. But the town's Cisco switches, which provide computer and phone networking, had reached end of life, according to a Dec. 2020 town council agenda report. Logicalis upgraded the town's Cisco networking switches and implemented a Cisco voice over IP phone system.

Apple Valley funded the upgrade through its own resources and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act's Coronavirus Relief Fund for cities and towns.

"When COVID hit, they did a really good job of leveraging the CARES Act," Riley said.

Other agencies have used the CARES Act to tighten security or to pursue more visionary projects, he noted. The variables include budget, availability of technical resources and IT maturity. "I think every single town is in a different spot," Riley said. "It's a mixed bag."

No-code/low-code in state and local government technology

The need to quickly deliver critical citizen services through digital means, while fending off rising levels of cybercrime, bumps technology up the list of urgent agenda items. Speed to market, typically a top consideration for private enterprises, has suddenly emerged as a state and local government concern.

Against that backdrop, the state CIO survey rated low-code/no-code technology as the most "impactful" emerging IT area in the next three to five years. Low-code/no-code finished well ahead of second-ranked AI/machine learning: "This reflects the need to deliver point solutions rapidly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic," the report noted.

State agencies traditionally haven't considered speed a virtue. "That changed in the last year," Finley noted. "They have this demand to have [projects] done quickly, and these low-code/no-code technologies are fairly well placed for that kind of solution."

State governments' initial interest in low-code/no-code "was a very tactical reaction to emerging needs -- the state department of health needs a website live in 10 days," Finley noted. But, since the early days of the pandemic, agencies have come to realize they can also employ low-code/no-code for legacy modernization.

The technology may play a lasting role in states' deployment strategies. Historically, states tapped commercial off-the-shelf products for systems such as ERP, used a lift-and-shift approach to implement a Medicaid system from another state, or opted for custom development, Finley said. Low-code/no-code offers an increasingly popular fourth option.

"We are anticipating this to be a larger portion of the application development landscape in the near future," Finley said.

Lakshmi AshokLakshmi Ashok

State and local governments, as well as the federal sector, increasingly adopt low-code/no-code technology, Lakshmi Ashok, vice president and enterprise service management lead at Leidos, an IT services provider based in Reston, Va. The platforms give agencies' nonprofessional developers the ability to build applications, she added. Market researcher Gartner reported in October that 41% of employees identify as "business technologists" who create technology or analytics capabilities outside of the IT department.

Cloud adoption for citizen services, iterative projects

State and local agencies, meanwhile, also pursue cloud computing, finding it helps with incremental rollouts, versus grand plans, and the rapid deployment of citizen-facing applications.

"We are seeing modernization efforts go from a big-bang approach to a more iterative modernization effort utilizing automation and cloud technologies," said Tom Keane, vice president of sales and public sector at InterVision, an IT services provider with headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., and Chesterfield, Mo.

While federal agencies pursue broader IT modernization initiatives, state and local governments more tightly focus on individual citizen service projects, Ashok noted.

"They are looking at providing connected citizen services, and the trend is mainly to go SaaS," she said.

Government trends to watch

Here are some other state and local technology developments to consider, beyond chatbots, cloud and low-code.

Digital ID initiatives

A handful of states have comprehensive programs in production, but Finley said anecdotal evidence suggests more states could be making significant moves in the next year.

Data integration technologies

State and local agencies will focus on such technologies, which make data more actionable without the need to implement larger, data warehouse-type technologies, Keane noted.

Robotic process automation (RPA)

RPA will continue to play a role among state and local agencies, even as low-code/no-code use takes off. Finley said RPA will help agencies bridge legacy systems when a permanent interface isn't in their immediate plans.

Brendan Walsh, senior vice president of partner programs at 1901 Group, an MSP in Reston, Va., and wholly owned subsidiary of Leidos, said his company partners with SaaS vendor ServiceNow and IaaS provider AWS in the government market.

SaaS experienced a large increase in state and local adoption over the last year, Finley said, noting offerings may be hosted in public or private clouds. SaaS technologies in demand range from Salesforce and ServiceNow platforms to niche offerings in areas such as timekeeping and talent retention, he added.

The overarching cloud approach has shifted to "cloud smart" versus "cloud first," Finley said. Most states have backed away from the latter. While cloud-first initiatives made cloud the default choice, agencies following the cloud-smart concept evaluate workloads for cloud suitability.

"They have an internal business case process for what makes sense to move to the cloud and what doesn't," Finley said. "What they are trying to do, generally, is reduce their reliance on state data centers."

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