The State Broadband Leader: Avoiding Burnout and Creating a Recognized Professional 

Recently I was catching up with a former state broadband leader I had the pleasure of working with while leading stakeholder outreach for the US Treasury’s Capital Projects Fund. This individual had just left state government for the private sector, and I was curious what her motivations were to leave. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for what I heard. I expected to hear that it was for the money–an offer that couldn’t be refused. Instead, what I heard doesn’t bode well for sustainability and the professionalization of state broadband leaders, and what’s worse, I’ve been hearing similar stories from leaders around the country. 

This person relayed that after working long hours for several years, the stress of being responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars, limited resources, and lack of appreciation they looked to their family for feedback on whether to make a career change. The response was an overwhelming plea from family members to make the change. For me, her story was a pertinent reminder that the job of being a state broadband director is hard and only getting harder, and at this rate, she won’t be the only broadband director that leaves her post before BEAD is done. So, what can be done to avoid the feeling of burnout that seems to be permeating through state broadband offices (SBOs)?

My service as the Director of North Carolina’s Broadband Infrastructure Office for nearly seven years is a career highlight. I loved the mission and my team. When I started in 2015 we didn’t have money, a grant program or the resources needed to fulfill our vision to connect every household and business to reliable, affordable high-speed internet. The obstacles and issues we faced are far different than the ones current SBOs face. The role and responsibilities of a state broadband leader has changed dramatically in only a few short years. 

Billions of dollars are being heaped on states with a mandate to have those dollars obligated by November (yes, 2024 AD/CT). State broadband leaders are being asked to do the impossible. Many of these offices are struggling with legacy programs, rules and laws, conflicts between state law and federal program guidance, private sector interest lobbying, and staffing. The pace and depth at which they are working is overwhelming just to hear. 

During my time as a state broadband leader the lack of support and resources was demoralizing at times. One place where I found a morale boost and plenty of creative solutions was the State Broadband Leaders Network (SBLN). In the time between federal broadband grant programs (BTOP) and extremely large, seismic broadband grant programs (CARES, ARPA & IIJA) only a handful of states maintained an office (typically a couple of individuals) dedicated to broadband policy or grant programs. This small group continued to meet once a year in Washington, DC with the help of and in partnership with NTIA. 

Fun fact: The SBLN is not a formally chartered entity or group. It is an independent group of state leaders, unencumbered by federal authority or oversight, that share information, ideas and sometimes shoulders. 

The common refrain is the billions dedicated to broadband infrastructure and digital equity is a once-in-a-lifetime investment. Those of us on the ground and those with engineering backgrounds understand that it will take a decade or more to connect everyone (#internetforall). And when we are finished building we won’t likely be finished building. Or educating and teaching. This heightened responsibility on states to get it right necessitates an investment in sustainable leadership. 

There are several ways to help these leaders and a fine place to start is by recognizing their status as leaders in their states. This can be done by creating titles and positions in state governments that provide them the autonomy and resources to implement and administer large federal grant programs (aka: DOTs, HUD), commensurate pay, and representation. State leaders of large agencies typically have national organizations or associations that support their work and their important roles in the administration of government agencies. We could use a “National Association of State Broadband Leaders” or something with a catchy acronym right about now. 

3 thoughts on “The State Broadband Leader: Avoiding Burnout and Creating a Recognized Professional ”

  1. Can I get a hallelujah for Jeff here! This article is long overdue and at a critical time when these individuals will be the ones who are responsible for ensuring all the billions of dollars are allocated and projects are COMPLETED for each state. We advocated for state control, the feds gave it to us, now let’s make sure we finish the job! GIVE THESE FOLKS THE LONG-OVERDUE SUPPORT THEY NEED AND DESERVE!!

  2. Jeff is spot on and the story gets much worse when the leaders leave because in most cases the bench is very shallow. States ave een bootstrapping dollars and personnel with sparse resources for too long, so the next generation, however dedicated, is short on experience and completely unprepared to manage the storm these offices are facing. With a clock ticking loudly, incredible sums of money, and the sure bet that there are folks already looking to find reasons to blame the directors for not doing things fast enough, of being in the telcos pockets, of making bad investments, . .., who would want this job? The spotlight Jeff shines on this issue needs to spark serious conversations leading to action. NTIA is an important advocate, but other advocates for universal broadband and digital equity need to figure out what they can do to be part of the solution and take action, starting with their own state legislatures

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