IE11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Pandemic Proves Value of Online Services, Acting State CIO Says

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of making services available remotely, Acting Chief Information Officer Russ Nichols told attendees at the California Public Sector CIO Academy.

IMG_4403 (1).jpg
Acting state Chief Information Officer Russ Nichols, who is also the acting director of the California Department of Technology, delivers opening remarks at the California Public Sector CIO Academy in Sacramento.
Theo Douglas/Industry Insider – California
The COVID-19 pandemic lowered resistance to online services, the acting state chief information officer told an audience of technologists at the first in-person California Public Sector CIO Academy since 2020.

In remarks that opened the two-day event* Tuesday at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel, Acting CIO Russ Nichols, who is also the acting director of the California Department of Technology (CDT), praised those present for enabling the almost immediate shift by about 180,000 state employees to remote work when the pandemic took hold — and said the subsequent months made clear the value and the incredible need for digital services. Nichols singled out the California departments of Motor Vehicles, Employment Development, and Parks and Recreation for their remote offerings and praised Gov. Gavin Newsom for asking the question of “how do we bring government closer to the people that consume the services?

“It doesn’t matter what the service is, let’s find a way to do it better. And that’s what he’s challenged us to do; the pandemic helps us do that,” Nichols said. “And so now we’ve got an opportunity that we’ve never had before and actually, we’ve got some funding that we’ve never had before.” He highlighted three initiatives at CDT as particularly reflective of that:

  • The Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) — for which officials chose the first series of four IT projects in December — is aimed at “that niche of projects that are just below PAL,” the CIO said, referencing the Project Approval Lifecycle process. It’s intended to enable smaller projects, Nichols said, with high value that can be delivered quickly. The proposal process, he said, is not unlike television’s “Shark Tank,” with an audience of “undersecretaries, some chief deputies, some business people from the state,” and he recommended applicants bring a good business proposal and demonstrate whether this is the right team; whether the project can be done — in less than a year — and whether it’s an “outcome worthy of investment.”
    “And if the answer is yes to those three things, essentially you get a grant,” Nichols said. “It’s an example of how we’re trying to change the way we do business. Good things need to be done and we don’t necessarily need a 24-month budget process for a six-month project.”
  • The California Stabilization Service is aimed at driving the assessment of mission-critical services and systems and their ongoing preventative maintenance — to “avoid the downstream emergency if we can do that,” Nichols said. Per CDT, there’s no application process, but for those selected, the department will lead “the effort to assess mission critical services and will assist in determining the best project approval and funding path to implement stabilization recommendations,” with TMF potentially used to pay for urgent needs revealed by an assessment.
    “And really one of the outcomes that I want to get, as we exit, I want to have a stronger bond between the CIO and the director of that department, where they’re talking about the IT infrastructure and the investments because those are long-term investments in the operation,” Nichols said. “And I want those two people to be as close as possible and well-aligned to make sure that we’re spending money in the right places so we don’t have an emergency.”
  • On digital ID/single sign-on, officials were authorized in statute to do a pilot and demonstrate the technology works, Nichols told Industry Insider — California. Officials are currently working with a regional transit group in the Bay Area, he said, on a digital login to access municipal bus service — and with the potential to access similar services around the state. “It really is focused on that privacy and security-type aspect, to go back and show that not only can we have the utility and the outcome of using digital identity, but we’ve protected the folks’ information at the same time,” Nichols said in an interview. “And so, that will be the next step is to fire up a couple more elements of the pilot and then go back, present that to the Legislature with the intent of moving it forward across the state.” A key value of digital ID or single sign-on, he told the audience, is that authentication thresholds can differ depending upon, for instance, whether a resident is paying the state or if the state is issuing a benefit payment. And in keeping with its mission of a single identity, the system should also enable changes to, for example, a person’s name or information to only be made once.

*The California Public Sector CIO Academy is produced by e.Republic, parent company of Industry Insider — California.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.