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Future Ready Award Winners Use Technology to Boost Resilience

Modern tools and techniques helped organizations overcome disruption.

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2020 has been called “The Great Acceleration,” and with good reason.

While this term refers to the pivot businesses had to make this year due to COVID-19, it also holds true for state and local governments. Organizations of all types essentially had to transform themselves overnight to meet new pandemic-driven demands around remote work, digital service delivery and data analytics.

Some government agencies had a head start in this race to become “future ready.” They had embraced cloud modernization, virtualized parts of their IT infrastructure and adopted IoT and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven technologies before the pandemic hit.

Government Technology recently recognized five such jurisdictions — Los Angeles County; El Paso, Texas; the Orange County (Fla.) Property Appraiser’s Office; the state of Mississippi; and the city of Lynchburg, Va. — with 2020 Future Ready Awards. The award program, underwritten by Google Cloud, recognizes jurisdictions that are embracing IT modernization and digital technologies to prepare for the future.

Technology leaders from all five organizations recently gathered for a virtual conversation about how they are using technology to be more responsive and resilient. 

What it Means to be Future Ready

Being future ready is no longer optional for government agencies. It has become a mission-critical component of how they need to operate going forward.

Future ready agencies leverage new technologies and processes to guide their overall business strategies and fulfill their missions. A 2020 research from the Center for Digital Government (CDG) shows that more than 75 percent of state, county and city governments are developing formal content, governance and user experience strategies to deliver better interactions to citizens, staff and other stakeholders. These strategies involve fine-tuning marketing and communications both within the organization and externally. They also include new policies and practices that mandate the use of data and identify digital channels these organizations will use to engage with stakeholders.

The CDG survey found state, local and county governments are turning to a variety of technologies and approaches to make this happen, including single sign-on solutions, native mobile apps, messaging apps, SMS text messaging solutions and responsive web design practices. Overall, governments are focusing on delivering human-centered technology experiences, which balance process automation with personalization and user-centered design to speed service delivery.

Many of this year’s future ready award winners are embracing this human-centered approach to transform their organizations.

AI-Driven Engagement

To become future ready, the Orange County Appraiser’s Office has employed a “citizen-centered cross platform strategy,” says Tatsiana Sokalava, the organization’s chief operating officer.

That strategy includes leveraged big data and artificial intelligence to introduce new technologies, such as a conversational chatbot on its website that answers taxpayers’ questions. The office also developed a cloud-based survey tool to gather more data and customer feedback about its field appraisals. The tool even includes sentiment analysis capabilities that flag feedback the organization needs to act on more quickly.

“During this pandemic, we’ve introduced several integrated SaaS applications that have actually helped us through this challenging time,” Sokalava says.

Mississippi also uses chatbot technology. A statewide chatbot -- aptly named Missi -- responds to a range of citizen requests and inquiries. The technology, which has been in place for several years, played a significant role in helping the state meet growing demands for information and services during the pandemic.

“She [Missi] is available to help our citizens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and supports about 400 types of interactions right now,” says David Johnson, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services and CIO for the state.

Website Upgrades

Like many jurisdictions, the city of El Paso embraced collaborative tools to facilitate remote work when the pandemic hit. The city also deployed a new community-focused website to centralize communication to residents, giving them a go-to destination for finding information and resources.

Araceli Guerra, the city’s director of information technology, says the new website helped the city be more responsive during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We were able to really action that website and transform it into a one-stop shop where citizens could find testing information, rental assistance, food assistance and broadband initiatives,” she says.

The Power of Planning

Los Angeles County strengthened service delivery during the pandemic, too, while it lays the groundwork for a digital future. The county established a $10 million technology innovation fund to support various departmental initiatives, created a $20 million legacy modernization fund and developed an enterprise-wide IT strategy that involves more than 200 business units and 37 different departments. In addition, the county is using predictive analytics and AI to address social issues, including homelessness, incarceration, and racial and digital equity.

Bill Kehoe, the county’s chief information officer, says having a strategic plan is key to making his organization future ready.

“We actually have created a plan where we have teams around each of the goals. Those teams identify objectives, and they identify current and future initiatives that then drive us forward in an innovative way,” Kehoe says.

There’s a lesson here for other government organizations that want to become future-ready — have a plan. As the CDG survey indicates, agencies are employing content, governance and user experience strategies to drive IT innovation. These strategies, along with good data management, can lay the groundwork for a strategic business plan that government organizations can execute on.

Addressing New Risks

States and localities will confront new information security risks as they reimagine how they engage with employees, residents and other stakeholders.

Terry Hutchens, Lynchburg’s chief information officer, says governments must focus on enterprise security as they modernize. His city has added new functionality to its mobile app, collaborated with school districts and state agencies on new applications and cloud infrastructure to improve service delivery and increase resilience, he says. At the same time, it beefed up security to protect this evolving digital environment.

“We’re rolling out multifactor authentication — not just for email but for every type of remote access that you can have,” Hutchens says. “We've also moved tertiary backups to the cloud for all our data to avoid the potential for ransomware in the future.”

The Journey Ahead

What’s clear from these five jurisdictions is that becoming future ready includes IT modernization that makes governments more agile, secure and user-centric. Key pillars of this strategy must include scalable cloud platforms that facilitate remote work and citizen engagement, modern security policies and services, and AI-driven tools and user-centered design that drive a digitally enabled, human-centered approach to service delivery.

“We really should be delivering our services like the private sector does. Citizens have come to expect that same transparency and ease of use in their engagement with government as they have in their private lives,” says Johnson. “In the private sector, a successful business usually has a solid business plan. In government, that digital business plan, objectives and mission are basically pre-determined for you by mandates, by law and by policy. But what changes over time is the way we deliver services to meet those objectives and strive for continuous improvement.”