Heather Abbott, who was named West Virginia’s CIO and head of its Office of Technology (OT) last summer, knows a thing or two about staying power.

Abbott has been with the state for her entire career since graduating from West Virginia Institute of Technology – now part of West Virginia University – almost two decades ago.

In fact, her two decades of state service have always been in the IT arena, starting with the West Virginia Department of Transportation (DOT). “My first 13 years with the state were with the Information technology department within the DOT,” Abbott told MeriTalk. “And that’s one of our biggest state agencies. So I understand how DOT works. And I understand a lot of their challenges, and what their needs are.”

Abbott attributes her overall success as she moved up the state’s IT organizational ladder to her longstanding state service.

“I believe it definitely has played an important role because after DOT I came and worked as an IT project manager for OT where I’m at now,” she said.

Abbott worked there for just over three years, and said, “that enabled me to understand and work with a lot of different departments on the projects that they were involved in, and how their relationships with OT have evolved over the years because as a consolidated agency OT has only been around about 18 years.”

OT’s consolidation has been an evolving journey, according to Abbott, and that’s directly related to the methodology used to bring the department together. Rather than disbanding department IT services and assimilating the units into “The Borg” at OT as many state consolidations have done, West Virginia adopted perhaps a kinder and gentler approach – or so the affected departmental IT units understand.

“For the IT groups within the departments, we just changed their roles a little bit. And then in 2021 we changed the state IT leader’s title from CTO to CIO. So there wasn’t a huge amount of reorganization,” Abbott recounted.

The consolidation did, however, change the role of Abbott’s former position at OT. She used to be OT’s Chief Operations Officer.

“We consolidated the parts of departments that were not brought in under us at OT,” Abbott said. “They were mostly the application development teams. So within all of our departments, for the most part, they have kept what’s typically called an MIS unit, and they serve a very specific department.”

Abbott – like most state CIOs – does not report directly to the state governor, as her OT shop is part of the Department of Administration. “But I do also report to the chief of staff and Deputy Chief of Staff Brian Abraham in the governor’s office,” she said.

When it comes to IT priorities, West Virginia is looking at a lineup similar to other states. “Cyber of course is always a top priority for everybody,” Abbott said. “And I’m excited and scared of AI, both at the same time. And I’m not sure which one’s going to win.”

She believes there are some amazing opportunities with AI that will allow OT and state departments to improve services, to combat fraud more efficiently, and to enable the state to get information to its citizens quicker, more effectively, and more accurately.

Abbott is adamant about the importance data accuracy and security. “We have to make sure that everything is secure, that we’re doing everything that we can to get that information into our citizens hands, but also protect our citizens and protect that information. So I think the next few years are going to prove to be exciting and interesting and scary.”

We concluded our conversation with thoughts about the upcoming National Association of State Chief Information Officers mid-year conferences outside Washington, D.C., later this month.

Abbott was enthusiastic about the opportunity for collaboration with other state officials that NASCIO conferences provide. “You could always try to make a phone call but everybody’s busy. So it’s really like that saying, ‘We’re all smarter together than we are individually.’”

Abbott believes that NASCIO gives state IT leaders – together with their vendor community partners –that highway that allows for asking each other questions, plus the conferences put everyone at a table together in person to hear their common struggles.

“One of the greatest things that I’ve taken away, and that I’ve heard so many other people say at these conferences, you really realize you’re not alone,” she said. When you go to these events and you get to talk to the other CIOs and the other staff, and vendors, and other states, you realize the problems are not just yours. So the opportunity to see how other states are handling things – priceless.”

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John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn
John Thomas Flynn serves as a senior advisor for government programs at MeriTalk. He was the first CIO for the both the State of California and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was president of NASCIO.