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Making the Case for Cyber Defense Spending in Local Government

IT leaders in one Arizona county are working to demonstrate the ROI on cybersecurity investments.

The way David Stevens describes it, local government leaders in Maricopa County, Arizona, didn’t always have an especially favorable view of cybersecurity spending.

A "grand black hole of a money pit.” That’s how it was seen about four years ago, said Stevens, who is the county’s chief information officer. “You had no idea what they were doing. They always wanted money to buy tools,” he added, referring to cybersecurity staff members. “We just thought of them as, sort of, the wizard behind the curtain, that got in the way of business.”

Complex explanations about cybersecurity programs provoked glazed over looks from decisionmakers, and Stevens also noted that there was a general impression that some among Maricopa’s cybersecurity team had an inclination to say "no" to technology changes that might create any new cyber-risks, an approach that didn’t always mesh well with the county’s goals.

At the same time, the cyber-threats local governments faced were on the rise, with some of them posing potentially serious consequences and costs.

In more recent years, Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix and has a population of about 4 million people, has made strides toward addressing some of the challenges around cybersecurity that Stevens highlighted.

He and the county’s chief information security officer, Michael Echols, outlined these efforts during a talk on Wednesday at the 2015 FireEye Cyber Defense Summit in Washington, D.C.

Together, Stevens and Echols have worked to develop a strategic plan for cybersecurity in Maricopa County that can be explained and discussed in understandable language, and which is also backed up by metrics that can clearly show how it is effectively reducing risk and liability.

"When they make an investment, they want to understand what that return on investment is going to be,” Echols said, referring to county decisionmakers, such as Maricopa’s Board of Supervisors. “What value do they get out of putting money into what I’m proposing.”

“When they see that value, it makes sense” he added. “They want to invest.”

But for those working in the field of government cybersecurity, making a case for new technology based on its return on investment can require a shift in thinking. Echols puts it this way: “We’re IT professionals, and we’ve got to transition to this business perspective.”

When Echols took his post as the chief information security officer in Maricopa County, one of the first things he did was a “capability assessment” to show what the county was capable of when it came to guarding against cyber-risks. Next, he worked to establish some baseline measurements for how those capabilities compared to industry standards.

All of this provided a basis for the strategic plan. Developing the plan helps Stevens when it comes time to make a pitch to county leaders for why taxpayer dollars should be spent on a cybersecurity expense. “That strategic plan gives him something to sell,” Echols said of Stevens. “At the end of the day, he’s really our chief salesman.”

With the plan in place, Stevens pointed out that cybersecurity investments can be framed in terms of broader objectives, such as protecting Maricopa’s “brand,” building trust with people who have shared information with the county, and allowing the government there to deliver better services.

Undergirding the plan is Echols’ “portfolio” approach to the work he and his staff carry out. The cybersecurity portfolio is broken into groups that cover specific areas.

For instance, one group focuses on operations and is responsible for an incident response plan, which involves identifying and responding to incidents such as data breaches. Another group oversees a risk management plan and works to understand the county’s exposure to cyber-threats and to reduce those vulnerabilities. This might mean explaining to departments why their computer systems are prone to attacks, and how to address these issues.

Echols believes it’s important for chief information security officers to fully design a portfolio even if the people and resources aren’t available to support it. This is because it demonstrates there is a “pathway to success.”

Metrics are also important. In Maricopa these include things like trend analyses examining whether the number of attacks and responses are increasing or decreasing. And if Echols is seeking approval for the purchase of new technology to help defend against a certain type of cyber attack, he might look for a way to quantify how many hours of downtime it would save the county, and calculate a dollar amount for how much that downtime would cost in lost productivity.

Cybersecurity metrics do not always need to be tied to slick new purchases. They can be used to measure the effect of more routine upgrades as well.

“If people are migrating off of Windows 2003, and those kind of things, the risk will go down,” Echols said. “You want to be able to demonstrate that in a number.”

Ultimately, Echols explained that he wants to be able to show the board of supervisors and the citizens of Maricopa County that the cybersecurity investments being made are working.

“They should see that their investments are paying off,” he said.