New Jersey State Policy Lab: State CIOs Prioritize Digital Equity After Pandemic

by Jessica Cruz

Climate change is one of the wicked problems of our times. It is well established that human activity is the primary cause for drastic changes in the climate over the last seventy years.[1] However, public opinion on climate change is multidimensional, dynamic, and differentiated – these dimensions include beliefs about anthropogenic climate change, perceptions of climate change risks, concern about its seriousness, and thoughts on what should be done to address it (Shwom et al., 2015). Although individual behavior change is seen as a key strategy, public engagement remains limited (Fernandez et al., 2016). Improving our understanding of what affects engagement and individuals’ everyday environment-friendly behavior could thus play an important role in improving the efficacy of climate-related policies.

Angela Siefer, founder and executive director of the Ohio-based National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), has done digital equity work dating back to the ’90s. Up until 2019, Siefer was encountering many public officials who did not understand what digital equity was or why it mattered despite the increased digitalization of the government over the past years (Quaintance, 2022). Nowadays, however, Siefer rarely needs to explain. When COVID-19 hit, governments at all levels realized that the modernization of government and the world did not benefit everyone. Students were left unable to join Zoom classes. Seniors couldn’t visit doctors remotely, and Americans struggled to access their pandemic benefits. All these issues pushed digital equity as a necessary focus in the state government’s digital initiatives.

To examine how digital equity has shaped the state government’s digital initiatives since the pandemic, it’s important to look at the State Chief Information Officers (CIOs) priorities over the years. State CIOs are the top IT officials for state governments, and they are at the center of digital initiatives in state governments (Mazella, 2021). All of the state CIOs in the United States get together at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) Conference every year to set a list of their top 10 priorities for the upcoming year. Their priorities show that once COVID hit, State CIOs were determined to ensure that their digital efforts were not only continuing to modernize government, but also ensure they were equitable.

Expanding broadband connectivity has become an increasingly important priority for State CIOs after the pandemic. In 2019, State CIOs ranked broadband connectivity as #9 in their top 10 priorities, but in 2020, broadband connectivity jumped to the #4 spot. While broadband connectivity was considered a priority for CIOs before the pandemic, the 2020 State CIO Survey stated that the pandemic proved to CIOs that an expansive and reliable broadband network was needed more than ever to make their efforts towards a digital government accessible and successful (NASCIO, 2020). Broadband continues to be a pressing issue for CIOs as broadband connectivity jumped up once again to #3 in 2021.

Digital government/digital services is another priority for State CIOs that has shifted to be more equitable since the pandemic. While digital government/digital services has been ranked #2 in priorities for State CIOs since 2019, it wasn’t until the 2020 CIO Survey when increasing public participation became a priority for digital services/digital government for more than two-thirds of State CIOs (NASCIO, 2020). The increased permanency of digital services for states after the pandemic put equitable digital services as a duty for State CIOs.

As the article “Why Government Needs to Design for Digital Equity” states nicely, “The pandemic exposed how digital initiatives make assumptions about users, which often exclude those with more unique lives than designers anticipated. Americans are becoming increasingly aware that digital systems often do not equally include those who need them most” (Eggers & Causey, 2022). There seems to be hope as State CIOs and state governments shift in becoming more digitally equitable as they build their digital infrastructure and expand access to digital resources and design their digital services to be user-friendly to all Americans.

The Agile State Cio – NASCIO. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://www.nascio.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/2020-State-CIO-Survey.pdf

Eggers, W. D., & Causey, M. (2022, April 6). Why government needs to design for Digital Equity. Governing. Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://www.governing.com/next/why-government-needs-to-design-for-digital-equity

Jon Mazella. (2021, August 26). Improving online experiences is key to expanding Digital Government. Technology Solutions That Drive Government. Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://statetechmagazine.com/article/2021/03/improving-online-experiences-key-expanding-digital-government

Quaintance, Z. (2022, March 2). Digital Equity Takes Center Stage in U.S. cities post Covid. GovTech. Retrieved June 15, 2022, from https://www.govtech.com/civic/digital-equity-takes-center-stage-in-u-s-cities-post-covid