State CIOs everywhere are struggling to transform their workforce—an uphill battle given the COVID-19 pandemic, the switch to remote work (and sometimes back to the office) and the Great Resignation. Add to that the lack of sufficient budget to recruit and retain badly needed technical talent at the state level.
As if the pandemic weren’t a difficult enough time to kickstart workforce transformation, states are also scrambling to replenish their dwindling ranks of IT workers. State IT workforce shortfalls have become acute, warned the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), which has sounded the alarm about governments requiring more but staffing less. “The words skeleton crew were heard far too often in the past year,” says Bob Stevens, area vice president of public-sector sales at DevOps platform GitLab.
The cause of the shortfall is no big mystery to state CIOs. “The hours are long and the pay sucks,” Florida CIO Jamie Grant said at an Information Technology Industry Council event in January.
Of course, the pandemic exacerbated IT workforce concerns. “It’s always been a challenge that government pays significantly less than what the private sector pays,” says Teri Takai, senior vice president of the Center for Digital Government and a former CIO of California, Michigan, and the Department of Defense. “So it’s very difficult to keep really high talent, highly skilled people,” Takai says. What had been a “continuous trickle of retirements” is beginning to accelerate.
How state CIOs should start their workforce transformation
The disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic set back IT organizations significantly. A recent NASCIO survey of state CIOs reported the competencies that the pandemic most negatively impacted were application development, customer experience, customer relationship management, and cybersecurity.
The hours are long and the pay sucks.Despite the need, the CIOs surveyed surfaced workforce issues well down on their list of priorities, as only the seventh largest concern for 2022. Still, they did want to prepare for the transformation of knowledge, skills, and experience. State CIOs highlighted these specific workforce priorities:
- Continuing to recruit and retain qualified staff
- Training and career advancement and growth
- Workplace flexibility
- Improving pay scales
- Increasing workforce bandwidth and competencies
- Succession planning
The state IT workforce agenda seems appropriately ambitious, but how will CIOs achieve these objectives? Fixing the shortfall of state IT workers will take a sizable cash infusion, but observers concede there’s little political support for that. “How can you get the same jobs done without having the same level of people?” asks Takai. “That’s an issue that hasn’t been addressed yet or discussed much.”
Following are five recommendations by state IT workforce experts to accelerate transformation plans and address IT labor shortages without significant funding increases.
1. State CIOs should bolster remote work for IT workers
By now, everyone knows that for the majority of public- and private-sector IT workers, remote work had never been considered possible—and yet it’s working out well for many people. “State CIOs have told us that their teams have become more productive and content in their jobs when they are allowed to [work from home],” says Meredith Ward, NASCIO’s director of policy and research.
The number one issue that employees wanted was more flexibility.Remote or hybrid work offerings may help attract and retain state IT workers. “For many states, offering expanded remote work has helped in recruiting from all over their state and, in some cases, out of state,” says Ward. “This is generally something that state CIOs want to continue to grow.”
Colorado, for example, allows its 1,000 IT workers to work from anywhere in the state.
Just before the pandemic hit, the Governor’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) received the results of an employee survey.
“The number one issue that employees wanted was more flexibility,” said Bob Nogueira, OIT’s chief people officer. “We revamped our flexible work policy, and we retrained on how to manage work remotely. It was fairly serendipitous that we were ready for that.”
2. State CIOS should deploy productivity enhancing tools
Even before the pandemic, state CIOs looked at ways to pump new life into their IT workforce. The hope was that an investment in training, coupled with a pay bump, would lure additional talent. But state legislators are not necessarily on board with pay raises or modernizing technology platforms these days, says Takai. “Legislators would rather spend money on other things. Most of them are not educated on how technology impacts them.”
NASCIO has demonstrated that technology modernization is a state CIO priority and is fundamental to boosting workforce productivity. As NASCIO’s Ward insists: “States must—and I do mean must—modernize and increase flexibility.” Stevens of GitLab believes that legacy hardware, like mainframes, and a lack of application modernization remain big challenges for state IT workers.
Boosting productivity is about “collaboration and innovation and being able to focus on the work that adds the most value,” according to the authors of a Deloitte article on reimagining the government workforce. That focus often leads to the addition of digital collaboration tools and technologies that augment human intelligence, such as AI, automation, and analytics.
Having tools that increase flexibility and productivity has been shown to result in a better experience for an organization’s ultimate customers—the inhabitants of a state.
“The pandemic forced us to have a more customer-centric perspective, because when we all got sent home, we all got put in the same position,” says Jennifer Pittman-Leeper, a customer engagement manager at Tanium who was previously in charge of defining cybersecurity strategy for the state of Arizona. “I think it forced us to remember that there are humans behind all of this technology and to keep that in mind when creating it.”
3. To retain talent, state CIOs must improve the employee experience
In general, only 13% of all employees are fully satisfied with their experience at work, according to Gartner. Employees with a high-quality user experience are “at least 1.5 times more likely than others to have high levels of work effectiveness, productivity, intent to stay, and discretionary effort (meaning to go above and beyond their job requirements), Gartner analyst Jason Wong told Computerworld last year.
There’s also a more mundane side to improving the employee experience, says Colorado’s Nogueira. Take meetings, for example, which have changed drastically as a result of remote work. OIT has focused on establishing new norms, best practices, and behaviors about what improves productivity during team meetings.
“We’ve been really sensitive about communication and managing the meeting experience,” he says. IT workers are expected to focus entirely on the meeting at hand, avoiding other work or texting. The key to success, he says, has been “leaders modeling that behavior.”
Colorado workers are also encouraged to block time on their schedules for individual productivity and well-being. Lunchtime meetings are not OK unless something is “earth-shatteringly urgent,” says Nogueira.
4. State CIOs must inventory and optimize the workforce
State CIOs also need to fine-tune how they manage their IT organization. NASCIO urges states to conduct workforce assessments that inventory IT positions and skill sets, as a step toward identifying gaps or duplications and planning for future needs. “The bad news is that when we asked state CIOs in 2021, only 15% were doing this regularly,” says Ward.
One of the advantages of the public sector is that you get to wear a lot of different hats.Some states are flying blind without this information. “State CIOs consistently pointed to outdated job titles and classifications as a barrier to recruiting qualified talent,” says Ward. She believes that even qualified applicants won’t apply if they don’t fully understand the job description. Titles must also more closely match those in the private sector, she says.
Colorado is one of the minority of states cataloging employee skills and experiences. The state is planning to roll out a third-party learning platform to help employees understand their skill levels and “also learn how to scale from there,” says Nogueira. His team plans to share the inventory results with other state agencies to validate OIT’s readiness to tackle new initiatives.
Ultimately, doing more with less is about job flexibility, itself an important way to attract talent. “One of the advantages of the public sector is that you get to wear a lot of different hats and really find the one that fits the best,” says Pittman-Leeper of Tanium. “You get to be the engineer, the architect, and the project manager. That gives people exposure and experience to a lot of different vendors, technologies, and roles, and the ability to learn where they want to devote more of their time, energy, and resources in the future.”
5. State CIOs must foster a sense of digital transformation and cybersecurity urgency
Ward of NASCIO lauds the “resilience” of state IT workers. There’s no end to IT project plans in the works, even though fewer IT workers are available to tackle them.
But with cybersecurity and cloud projects topping state IT priority lists, the future of the state IT workforce demands immediate attention—and funding—including much greater focus from CIOs. Ward warns that the staffing shortfall has reached “crisis mode,” but it’s unclear whether many state legislators and IT leaders share that concern.
In Colorado, it wasn’t the state legislature, but the Department of Labor, that came to the IT office and offered to fund an apprenticeship program for developers, says Nogueira. Rolling out this summer, the program will pair software engineers “at a more junior level to study with a more senior-level person.”
Many more of these efforts will be needed. NASCIO has made clear that state CIOs have few easy answers to their workforce challenges. Like it or not, doing more with less has become the new normal.