New York State

How New York’s chief information officer is guiding AI policy at state agencies

Cybersecurity and revamping the state unemployment insurance system are also on Dru Rai’s lengthy to-do list.

State Chief Information Officer Dru Rai talked about the four categories of projects at the top of his to-do list.

State Chief Information Officer Dru Rai talked about the four categories of projects at the top of his to-do list. State Office of Information Technology Services

The COVID-19 pandemic showed us just how far government has to go in providing accessible, easy to use services online. In New York, outdated technology and a reliance on outside vendors led to maddening waits to apply for unemployment insurance, and chaotic sign-ups for vaccine appointments. The meltdown of New York City’s remote learning system on a recent snow day shows that these challenges aren’t behind us.

Dru Rai is tackling some of these issues as New York state’s new chief information officer. Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed Rai to the role last September. As head of the state’s sweeping Office of Information Technology Services, Rai’s work ranges from cybersecurity to crafting artificial intelligence policy, but building out New York’s digital services is one of his top priorities. “COVID actually accelerated digital transformation everywhere, including New York,” Rai said. Now, the work ahead is expanding on that transformation.

This position is Rai’s first foray into the public sector, but he said that his experience at large companies, which includes roles chemical companies Quaker Houghton and DuPont, have prepared him for tackling problems in large and complex organizations – which arguably describes the state of New York. He’s also carrying over his focus on user experience to his current mission to make New York’s digital services easier to use and access.

City & State caught up with Rai recently to discuss his modernization priorities, the state’s workforce challenges, and his “root cause” approach to simplifying procurement. He will also be the keynote speaker at City & State’s Digital New York Summit on March 14. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What projects are at the top of your to-do list right now?

At any given point in time, there are 200-plus large programs, but I think for prioritization, I’ll classify that into four categories. First, is cyber. Last year, we announced a comprehensive cyber strategy. We created a strategy expanding our cyber program and remediating security, which we need to fix to make us more unified, resilient and prepared. We have, I would say, a one-of-a-kind in the nation Joint Security Operations Center in New York City. It’s a collaboration between the state agencies and local government. We take all the systems admin information from local governments and ingest into our system to look for incidents, and we also look for things which will cause problems going forward.

And what’s the second category?

We have lots of modernization programs which we are rolling (out), but the key element of all those programs is customer experience. The governor recently hired a chief customer experience officer – Tonya Webster – and we are working with her trying to not just modernize systems, but improve New Yorkers’ experience. There are so many programs that we are running, but we are adding the element of: “What is the impact on our end user?” Which, traditionally, is not something most of the government agencies look for. One of the examples is the one ID system, which we have so that we can use one login for New Yorkers, so that they don’t have to have so many logins for different services.

How far along is that one ID program?

We have approximately more than two dozen applications already in. The task is every citizen-facing app is going to have one ID. So we are either timing it with the modernization of some of those programs, or if those platforms are already modern, then we just simply integrate them. Obviously, we have to work with the client agency, because they are the ones who are going to support New Yorkers. But that’s part of our architecture going forward.

And you have two other priority areas?

Artificial intelligence would probably be the third one, and I use AI in a very broad sense. I know the press and everybody is just glamorized by the ChatGPT and generative AI. But when I use the word AI, I’m talking about from basic automation to using complex language models. We have been using, in that sense, AI for a number of years. We know the benefit of that, there are several examples, from a chatbot to robotic process automation, to even some machine learning programs which we are experimenting (with). Obviously, the use of AI comes with certain risks, just like any other technology. Recently, at the governor’s direction, we published the AI policy, which is the guideline all agencies need to follow for implementing AI tools and their usage, especially directly serving New Yorkers. Those guidelines advocate safe, ethical and transparent use of those tools. One of the big things I tell people is there is a human element involved in that, there is human oversight. We just don’t let the AI decide and make decisions for New Yorkers. 

Did the Office of Information Technology Services have a role in crafting the recently published AI policy?

ITS crafted this, yes. And it will be a living and breathing document, as you can imagine any policy should be.

And the final priority?

To do all these things, you need a great workforce. People talk about the negative impact of AI on jobs – we are seeing actually (that we) need more people who actually know AI, to be honest with you, to help New Yorkers. We want to use our workforce to serve New Yorkers, instead of using contractors who may not be from New York. Why not use stakeholders inside the state to serve the citizens? So workforce development is the foundation for doing everything I just talked about.

Has it been a challenge to recruit workers?

Yes. I’m the prime example of that. Obviously, we have civil services, we take people right out of college and build their career. We are looking for people who have the public service sort of bent to their career, but it’s hard. Our compensation cannot match the private sector. Our benefits are definitely awesome. At the same time, as you said, people can sit in the Caribbean and work for a private sector (company). Well, you can’t do that for the state of New York, unfortunately, you have to work in the state. There are a lot of difficulties. I would say that’s probably the most difficult part I have to deal with day in and day out, is attracting and retaining (workers).

Are you trying new strategies to address that?

Yeah, we offer a hybrid work environment. We have plenty of locations, from Buffalo to New York City. In that sense, we take full advantage of everything possible. But obviously, we have our own limitations when it comes to compensation and whatnot. We train people. We have a lot of cool projects which people would love to work on. We are looking for people who can make a difference to New Yorkers, leave a legacy, leave something behind so that you can look back and say, “Yeah, we made a difference,” whether you work five years, 10 years, or 20 years. So we are looking for a sort of emotional attraction to everything we can do. Because a lot of technology people just like to work on cool stuff. And we have a lot of cool stuff. We have 3,600 employees right now, which we are ramping to add more as we speak. And the sky’s the limit – we spend over a billion dollars on ITS. So it’s a place with a lot of opportunities, and that’s definitely one of the attractions.

Is procurement reform something that you’re taking on at all?

Yeah, I would actually frame it the following way. I think we tend to jump to procurement as a problem. If you kind of go further upstream, the problem is how do we conceive projects and fund projects. And what we generally do is we create giant monolithic programs, which requires hundreds of millions of dollars. When you create giant projects and programs, well, you’re going to create a giant procurement process, which is going to be complex, large, probably full of failures. One of the things we are doing actually is, whenever possible, we are breaking the programs into smaller chunks. This requires a little more planning, this requires working with the Department of Budget and other places so that you can plan and spend it. But I would say I’m taking a root cause approach, changing the nature of how we build programs and how we execute programs. And you will see the changes in procurement automatically. To your point, there are plenty of things in the procurement process which – I’m still new to tell my opinion – but all I can say is we have one process, whether you spend $100 or $100 million. That sounds wrong. In the private sector, we generally don’t do that. But in the public sector, the policies are created for a purpose. So I think we’ll be looking at reforming some procurement processes. There are policies which we can change to speed up the process, invite more suppliers and vendors, probably encourage smaller and medium-sized businesses, and so on and so forth.

Are there any updates on the revamp of the state’s unemployment insurance application system?

The short answer is it’s on the top of my list when it comes to modernization. And the good news is, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m really hoping that we are live with the new system by the end of the year, or somewhere around (there). We have modernized the system, it’s built in the cloud with New Yorkers as sort of the centerpiece of the experience.