*This article originally appeared in Government Technology on June 16, 2020.*
Major shifts are happening in front of our eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic upended government processes and everyday lives. Though most cities and states are well on their way to reopening, some shifts made may stay for a long time. But what operational adjustments and lessons learned will governments take away from this time? And how will those lessons shape the future of governing?
At the very least, local governments will become more flexible. In the recent webinar “Lessons in Flexibility: What COVID-19 Teaches Cities About Working Through Disruption,” government technology experts Patrick Moore, senior fellow at the Center for Digital Government , and Stephen Tyler, chief technology officer at Rock Solid Technologies, weighed in on the effects we are already seeing.
The big topics of the day focused around resolving the challenges that emerged during the pandemic. But it was not only about how governments addressed these challenges to meet immediate needs. It’s important to account for how lessons learned will apply over the long term to impact government adaptability, citizen engagement, and service delivery.
More than anything, COVID-19 proves that the future of government requires flexibility in people, process, policy, and systems. Here are three of the big lessons for moving forward with more adaptable local government operations:
Lesson 1: Remote Work Highlights the Necessity of Digital
One of the first big shifts caused by the pandemic was the physical closure of city hall. But just because the doors were locked didn’t mean work could stop. After getting over initial IT hurdles like ensuring everyone had laptops and remote system access, government work and service delivery continued from home. And for many local governments, results have been positive.
This “unprecedented work-from-home experiment” will result in permanent telework policies for many local governments. Tyler cited examples of new policies and plans for long-term remote work in local governments in places like Idaho, Texas, Wisconsin, Arkansas and more.
Over half of webinar attendees (54.6 percent) shared that their agency either already has or will implement new permanent telework policies. And though long-term plans were still up in the air for about a third of respondents, only 13 percent were certain that their agencies would not go remote.
But here is where the challenge of moving beyond the pandemic comes in. Remote government operations involve more than hardware and connectivity — it’s about service delivery. Now that governments can operate outside city hall, citizen services need to be accessible and functional from everywhere.
When asked about digital access to key city services like 311/service requests, board and commission applications, dog licensing, business licensing, business permits, and special events permits, 45 percent of attendees admitted that their organizations offered none of these services digitally. That’s a problem. And it’s not a surprise, either. Moore shared that government CIOs have known about these issues for a long time but making the shift to digital has been delayed for extended periods. COVID-19 has highlighted these areas of need.
The big takeaway? How government interfaces with citizens will change, and how citizens interface with government will change too. Providing digital access to services on the front end can improve accessibility, reduce service request call volumes by 15-20 percent, and reduce costs. According to Tyler, the “new normal” will accelerate the need for remote services due to the move to telework and increased cost pressures on local governments.
Cloud is the engine by which governments can deliver digital services most effectively. Tyler says, “the way you do digital matters, and cloud is the way to do it right.” Cloud offers the architecture that allows for scalability and flexibility for growth of remote delivery and expansion of city services, in crisis situations and beyond. It acts as a buffer for availability challenges in a way that on-premise systems do not and allows for scalability in times of crisis.
Lesson 2: Combine Effective Communication With Self-Service to Reduce the Burden on 311
In any crisis, from COVID-19 to natural disasters, demand for services will shift. And that often involves an increase in overall demand. With this pandemic, both in-person services (like COVID-19 testing sites) and other government services (like 311 call centers) saw extreme demand that overwhelmed services.
How do you respond to a rapid and sudden increase in demand? COVID-19 presented this problem to us all on a global scale. What local governments needed to do to respond was to “flatten the curve” for service demands. Just like citizens reduced physical contact to help curb the spread, reducing the number of 311 calls can ease the demand on call center employees working on a limited remote schedule. But how can cities provide scalable information and services? Organizations like Baltimore County eased volume burdens by merging their health department and 311 capabilities as part of their strategy for flattening the curve for health-care workers. The county created separate routes within 311 for various inquiry types around the pandemic. This ensured that high-priority health questions could route quickly to medical professionals while not overburdening the health department with more basic inquires 311 staff could address.
Your digital services should be part of your strategy for flattening the 311 curve. Local governments should be able to communicate, provide answers to common questions, and allow inbound requests through digital formats.
- Use your Web resources create a digital hub. Were you able to spin up an information center for COVID-19 quickly and easily on your website? Having one place for information about the disease, local regulations, testing sites, closures and more means fewer calls.
- Don’t forget mobile as part of your digital hub. Seventeen percent of households are mobile Internet only, and this number increases for lower-income adults (24 percent). The city of Dublin, Ohio, is a wonderful example of effective communication across digital platforms.
- Outbound communication is important too, so employ a smart messaging strategy. You need to get information to citizens in a way that’s timely and relevant. Use all formats of digital communication for lower cost and higher relevancy messaging. Mobile is particularly helpful as a vehicle here, as it opens up a lot of capabilities like geofencing and geotargeting to get the most important information to the right audience.
The ability to create event-oriented mobile and digital hubs is relevant beyond COVID-19. Your local government should be able to adapt for any special event, like upcoming elections, for example. Digital and mobile formats should be able to launch with ease to decrease the high tide of crisis- or event-based service demand.
Lesson 3: Build for Change With Adaptable Processes and Tools
Lesson 2 focused on the increase in demand for services, but another challenge local governments faced during COVID-19 was a shift in demand . Crisis situations shake up the services citizens need, in a big way. And during the pandemic, state and local governments had to quickly step up to support health care, business, unemployment and much more.
Meeting new needs requires flexibility in governments. For example, COVID-19 service request types, like the ability to report and respond to non-essential businesses that are open, needed to stand up quickly. However, government agencies didn’t have time to create and staff a whole new department. They had to allocate resources quickly to support these violations as soon as possible. Standardization is critical to making this happen.
Standardization allows governments to use as many existing resources and systems to spin up new services as possible. But it doesn’t always come easy. It requires both a culture that allows for adaptability and the tools that permit flexibility. As an example of the effectiveness of standardization, Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, stood up eight brand-new services to meet citizen needs in just a few weeks using their existing technology platform.
Do your tools allow you to add and run new services easily? Are different departments within your city all trained on these same adaptable tools, so pivots can happen quickly? And are those tools available from the cloud, accessible from anywhere? Change is inevitable, so your organization needs to be flexible and ready to adapt.
“When the chips are down,” says Tyler, “we all need to strive to be flexible and adaptable.” When local governments have the right culture and tools in place, they can shift to meet demands at the speed your citizens require.
The Future of Government Flexibility
Flexibility and adaptability in government have always been necessary when challenges arise. But beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons we have all learned will help us better serve citizens over the long term. Technology enables governments to rise in tough situations and do better, more efficiently.
It’s not too late to adapt. COVID-19 was a catalyst in revealing holes in some government services, but the lessons learned will carry on. And it’s not just the next emergency — these lessons will apply to the upcoming November elections, the next major weather event, and even everyday service delivery.
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