There’s no shortage of challenges facing the public sector when it comes to information technology. From fending off threats to crafting user-friendly platforms for government services, changes in the digital world are sure to impact the public sector – just as they permeate nearly every other aspect of our lives.
In July, Gov. Josh Shapiro named former Comcast executive Amaya Capellán as the state’s next chief information officer, tasking her with overseeing all things IT. In this exclusive interview with City & State, Capellán talks about how her background prepared her to become the state’s new IT czar and what she sees as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – for Pennsylvania in the digital space.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What have your first couple of weeks been like as chief information officer? What do the day-to-day duties of this position entail?
The first couple of weeks, like with any new job, has been just about meeting the team and meeting new folks and stakeholders that I’m going to be working with. On a more personal note, it’s been fun to go to Harrisburg and start getting used to my first actual office, because having worked in private sector tech, where people have really focused on those open office environments and no one had an office – that’s a little bit of an adjustment for me. It’s a beautiful office – I plan to definitely host plenty of meetings there.
One of the key things the CIO does is support the technology to enable all the employees in doing their job across all the agencies in the state, as well as the governor’s office. That goes from the networks we use to stay connected to the tools we use to do our jobs. On top of that, it’s also about all of the digital experiences that we extend through our agency. For example, I had my first meeting with all the CIOs who support the agencies to really get an understanding of customer priorities, what they’re thinking about, and what’s on their agenda for me.
What motivated you to enter the public sector?
It all started with an email. I was contacted by the Tech Talent Project, which the commonwealth was working with to recruit talent. Their whole mission is to bring people like me from the private sector into government and tech.
As I got to understand the opportunity more, what was compelling about it was the ingredients that I feel are key to seeing that I can be successful. For me, that was leveraging a background I’m passionate about. I’ve had the opportunity to really focus my career on digital transformation, and leveraging my skills as a product manager to really drive customer-focused outcomes. That is a key focus area for this administration. Gov. Shapiro has really, really clearly articulated that as part of his agenda for things like the launch of CODE PA, the Commonwealth Office of Digital Experience Pennsylvania. As for the switch to the public sector – I’ve always been driven by trying to drive impact at scale, which is what I’ve really enjoyed doing at Comcast. This opportunity to serve as CIO for 13 million residents – 80,000 of whom are commonwealth employees – was an opportunity to do that at a new level for me.
How can customer service in government be improved – and why is it important to do so?
Customer expectations – or resident expectations – about technology are being set by companies like DoorDash or Walmart, who’ve really leaned into digital. People see what great customer experiences look like every day in their interactions. They expect and deserve those same kinds of simple, easy customer experiences from government, too.
What I think everyone knows is true is that government has a lot of legacy systems that were invested in a long time ago, but we haven’t done the investment and the work to transition away from those. They can be very fragile systems that aren’t resilient and break when there’s any strain. So, investment in technology – when you have more modern and best-in-breed tools, you can provide or guarantee better security – is key. Then, hand-in-hand with that comes access to the right data at the right time, which can, again, create those easy customer experiences.
What are the threats currently facing the Office of Information Technology?
The commonwealth is just like any large-scale organization and we’re facing the same threats we read about in the headlines every day. I think, like in any organization, it is paramount to protect sensitive data and systems that are really critical to operate in our agencies. What I think is really key is just to have made sure we have the best tools and capabilities at our disposal. Identity management is really so important, both for residents and employees, making sure that every time someone is logging into anything, it’s the right person having the right access to the right things. It’s important to have all the tools to actively monitor and detect threats, hopefully before that happens, and to have the tools to alert us when they do so we can take the appropriate steps to secure whatever’s going on. Technology is changing all the time, and the kinds of threats and actors are growing very sophisticated. We humans are the biggest vulnerability – we need to focus on how we can really support that ongoing learning and evolution so we can all be ready to support secure practices.
As you continue to acclimate to the office, are there any particular initiatives or projects or anything on the horizon that you’re particularly excited about?
Yes: CODE PA, which is a really exciting team that Gov. Josh Shapiro instated through an executive order just a little under 100 days ago. CODE PA is really this incubation team identifying opportunities to bring in human-centered design practices and work in new ways to deliver consistent and great customer experiences.
Gov. Shapiro announced a focus on permitting and licensing because we know we can do better in many cases. Backlogs were resulting in people waiting weeks beyond the stated deadlines. There’s permanent licensing that we need to look at across many different agencies; CODE PA is part of a holistic solution.
One thing that I think is going to be an opportunity with permitting and licensing: When you step way back, there’s a pretty common process and flow of information you’re trying to gather and evaluate, and have the right people look at and then approve or send out. The high-level flow is the same. One of the things that CODE PA is evaluating is how we can say, “This is a core capability that we need to find the right tools and technology to make this a consistent, easy experience regardless of what agency you’re interacting with.” We’re taking a look at how we can have one great way to help residents get a permit from DEP or to start your barbershop. That’s an example of what we’re going after.
Is there anything you want readers to know about yourself or what you bring to the role?
I’m a people-first leader, so one of the things that I’m focused on is: How do you make this team one of the best places to grow a technical skill set? The breadth of jobs within IT – from being a network engineer to a helpdesk person to a product management developer – is really vast, and the public sector is a place where many people have the chance to start their careers. I think the other opportunity we have is to make our team reflective of the constituents we serve by really having a focus on bringing more diversity in as well.
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