As the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Information Technology, Craig Orgeron makes sure agencies have the tools they need to achieve their missions.

Governments at all levels are increasingly using technology to provide information and access to public services—and citizens are coming to expect that 24/7 access. The state of Mississippi is a leader in providing customer service to citizens through its website. The Center for Digital Government honored the state with a 2016 Best of the Web award for its website and a Digital Government Achievement Award for its online business filing system.

Craig Orgeron, the executive director of the state's technology department, plays a key role in establishing a vision for how state agencies will use technology and helping them find technology solutions that benefit the people of Mississippi. Here, he talks with The Public Manager about how technology is transforming how the state works to serve its citizens.

In your opinion, what's the role of the state chief information officer? What challenges do you face in this position?

As the executive director, I focus on setting enterprise direction programmatically. So, whether it's cybersecurity, the state network, or e-government, I seek to set an enterprise vision and put in place the tools for the state to do what it needs to do and accomplish what it needs to accomplish.

Many of our agencies have very complex missions across diverse sectors—healthcare, transportation, and education, to name a few. We want to empower agencies to use technology to effectively accomplish their missions. I also think one of our bigger goals is to provide an enterprise strategy that doesn't inhibit an entity from being innovative or creative when ­solving problems. At the same time, we need to create standardized, ­enterprise-level services. So, a challenge can be keeping agencies with diverse missions moving in a similar direction.

You mentioned e-government. Can you describe the evolution of the e-government movement? What are some of the driving technological forces, and what trends do you see emerging?

In Mississippi, e-government probably dates to a little more than 17 years ago. Things like the Internet bubble of the 1990s, more businesses moving online, and the rise of Amazon pushed many states into offering Internet-based applications to citizens. We started with very basic applications in Mississippi, such as driver license renewals and hunting and fishing licenses—things that appeal to a large cohort of citizens. E-government also makes it possible to push relevant information to users, instead of making citizens come to the government.

Some of the bigger issues affecting the evolution of e-government are the digital divide, falling technology prices, and the rise of ubiquitous Internet access via phones and tablets. We've certainly seen a big push toward mobile, and that tracks with citizen demographics. More and more citizens have grown up with mobile phones, and now they're in the workforce and consuming government services. We've also seen mobile services evolve to make use of voice technology. Quality voice-recognition technology is certainly an addition that's making mobile services more user-friendly.

Wearables are another area where voice is making an impact. I was at a conference when a good friend of mine had just purchased a wearable. We talked about how the device was almost too small to necessarily interact with, but that its voice capabilities, like giving commands, made all the difference.

We're also seeing more virtual reality technology becoming actual reality. Integrating VR into government creates many opportunities to serve and connect with citizens. One idea that comes to mind is when people need to take a driving test. I can see teenagers, for example, being fully immersed in a virtual driving test in the future.

So, those are some of the things that I see shaping this side of the business. We're using some of these technologies on the portal, and we certainly want to move more in that direction.

How do you determine which emerging tech services to include in an e-government offering? What feedback mechanisms are in place to make sure that you have your finger on the pulse, so to speak, of the needs of your constituents and that you are able to meet them where they are?

As the executive director of the technology department, my "customers" are typically government agencies that serve citizens. So, as a function, we're the glue that holds services together. We stay in close touch with agencies—whether it's our wildlife agency or a public safety agency—that work with citizens. We maintain an active dialogue with them about where they want to go.

But the individual agency needs to tell us what it needs to accomplish. Then we bring to the table whatever tech it needs: Internet, mobile, voice, or virtual reality, for example. We might say, "Have you thought about using this tech option?" Obviously, we're going to continue to explore the use of well-known private sector technology in the government space, but we also want to push the envelope forward with our partner agencies.


Here's a good example. In 2015, we had a serious inclement weather event in the state. Our Department of Transportation used a traffic app to alert citizens about ice or road issues and weather updates. During the event, we experienced a surge in mobile app downloads. In fact, there were nearly 6,000 downloads in a span of a week. Since that event, the app has been downloaded well over 90,000 times.

Another example is our business one-stop system that Mississippi's secretary of state has put in place. We're blessed in Mississippi to have elected officials who are enlightened when it comes to technology, and our secretary of state certainly fits that bill. So, the online business one-stop service he established takes potential business owners through the steps they need to follow when starting their business. This easy-to-use service allows for the elimination of a large portion of phone calls made by folks interested in starting a business in Mississippi. The result is not only tremendous cost savings for the agency, but also a reduction in incorrect filings by those who want to start a business. You can see how an agency is using tech to meet citizens at the point of need.

So, while you're trying to stay up-to-date with new tech trends and meet people where they are, how do you ensure that citizens who do not have the same access to certain tools or the Internet are best served? How do you create an umbrella that serves all systems?

Government is always going to be challenged more than the private sector because our mission is to serve everyone. Achieving a goal like "having 100 percent of services or information available online" is going to be tough, especially in large markets that serve the general population.

But we're seeing great success with mobile devices. For example, the use of smartphones and tablets has helped the most with managing the larger or generic license applications, like hunting and fishing, because we're able to reach so many people. And we've had a mobile app for driver license renewals for many years. In addition, the public safety department is adding kiosks for self-service.

Although we're making headway, it's going to take a long time to get to 100 percent adoption. Fortunately, we're seeing that adoption rates are much higher in some of our occupational licensing arenas such as tax accountants or landscape architects, which have more limited cohorts. In addition, there is increasing willingness by those regulatory boards to say, "We're going to set a goal of conducting 100 percent of our business online." This makes for a streamlined process. But again, getting to that complete immersion will be very challenging.

It sounds like getting feedback from agencies is an essential way for your function to find new ways to serve citizens. What are agencies doing to involve citizens in the needs assessment process, and how do they help you get feedback on how technology is serving them?

One of the elements that we rely on heavily is the use of analytics. If the analytics tell us that there are a lot of mobile visits to a particular web-based application, we can leverage that info to develop an additional native mobile app to reach more users.

Analytics are very powerful in this day and age, but we also still rely on focus groups, feedback from user surveys, and reviews. These tools remain a bedrock of not only the development process, but also a solution's refinement process.

How has technology and the rise in e-government changed the role of the typical government employee? What impact have these tools had on their day-to-day tasks and changed the skill sets that they need to be effective at their jobs?

The skill sets that workers need are evolving rapidly. I like to joke that my wife and I gave our 12-year-old a new device for Christmas, and before the sun went down she showed me three things that I couldn't do before that day. As more young people enter the public sector workforce, I think they will be innately better able to serve citizens via technology because they more or less grew up with it and are simply more comfortable with using technology.

How do you ensure that all government employees are current in what technology has to offer?

One thing we've done in recent years is sponsor a digital government summit, which attracts about 300 state employees. We invite agencies to present to peers details about the tech solutions they're using to connect with or serve citizens. This sort of event is effective in raising the bar on public sector technology because it showcases in a daylong event what the various types of solutions can do for government.

If agencies are just getting started in finding new technologies, what advice would you give them to ensure that they're using tech efficiently and in a way that benefits both citizens and employees?

When we build an application, it's important to realize that it needs to change the back-end business process—not just be an additional channel of service. This means we need to focus on the experience of the citizens. If you're just getting started, you need to embrace what technology can do, adopt the best trends, and not be afraid to streamline or reengineer outdated business processes. And, most important, continue to educate on technology at all levels.