State, Local Leaders Cite Cyber Progress, Predict Greater Automation


State and local leaders across the country are focused on using automation and digital services to modernize — improving operational efficiency, strengthening security, and delivering responsive service and positive experiences to employees and the residents they serve.

Yet although 96 percent of state and local IT decision-makers say IT modernization is vital to their organization’s future, only 12 percent graded current efforts as an “A,” according to a recent MeriTalk survey conducted in partnership with Dell Technologies, Microsoft, and VMware.

One state that has made significant strides in digital transformation is North Carolina, which has expanded broadband connectivity, modernized applications, and created a statewide cybersecurity partnership.

In a recent webinar, James Weaver, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology and state chief information officer, said he would grade the state’s IT modernization efforts “somewhere between B and C … we’re definitely not at the 12 percent in the forefront. We have some challenges.”

Those obstacles to IT innovation, Weaver said, range from uncertain funding to an election cycle calendar that has state legislators focused on two-year increments, making it harder to spread modernization money across longer time frames.

“A lot of these efforts are multi-year,” he said. “As much as you try to be agile, they do not get done relatively quickly. It’s a multi-year, multi-phase type of effort, so sustainable funding for [IT] initiatives is critical at the outset.”

Above all, Weaver added, leaving legacy systems behind requires an entrepreneurial mindset. “We have to be willing to take a look at our core business processes and see if we can start doing some things differently,” he said.

Many states are headed down that path, automating their business processes and updating the many monolithic applications still running on older technology, said Manny Veloza, an executive account manager at Dell Technologies.

One key nationwide change, Veloza added, is that state IT leaders are improving cyber defenses by thinking about cybersecurity at the start of IT infrastructure projects, as opposed to past efforts that sometimes left cyber until the end.

“We’re certainly seeing [cyber] folks get involved ahead of time,” Veloza said. “… Definitely, that needs to be more upfront, especially after everything that we went through with COVID and the difficulties of getting services up and running.”

To better protect data from cyberattacks, North Carolina in 2021 hired its first chief state privacy officer, a move that Veloza praised as leading to “a very careful thought process about what data we have, what are we sharing, and how careful we should we be with it.”

Another helpful innovation in North Carolina, Weaver said, was the state’s creation last year of a joint cybersecurity task force composed of a number of agencies that provide resources and technical assistance to state and local entities targeted by cyber criminals.

“We are taking a holistic state approach to how we respond … to cyber incidents within the state’s borders,” Weaver said. He said the new strategy has led to effective collaboration on cyber response between state and Federal officials and county and local governments.

“It’s not like the state government is swooping in to take over,” Weaver said. “We’re all in partnership, working very collaboratively and effectively together.”

The recent MeriTalk survey found that one of the most effective IT modernization efforts is a zero trust framework for cybersecurity, in which no users or devices are trusted by default. The survey also found that zero trust was also one of the least likely improvements to be implemented by state and local governments.

From North Carolina’s vantage point, Weaver said, zero trust “is not an end. It’s a journey … there is not a technology solution that somebody out there will buy and magically, you’re at zero trust. It’s really about a cultural change.”

He said state officials are working on that culture change in a multi-year effort.

Looking ahead, Veloza said he expects that continued automation of state and local networks nationwide will have perhaps the greatest IT modernization effect in coming years, smoothing operations and allowing governments to better serve their constituents.

“Automation will have a massive transformational effect operationally,” he said. “… Delivering on that promise is going to be incredibly important.”

For more insight, view the webinar on demand.