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How COVID-19 is Changing How State and Local Governments Approach Technology

The coronavirus outbreak has strained government response efforts, and the current recession will impact state and local revenues for years to come but will force governments to innovate in exciting new ways.

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The coronavirus outbreak has strained government response efforts, and the current recession will impact state and local revenues for years to come. But the virus has also forced governments to innovate in exciting new ways that will extend well beyond the pandemic.

“The full impact of Covid-19 has yet to unfold,” says Chris Haas, a strategic business executive with Google Cloud. “However, there’s clear indication that there are major changes in how technology is being leveraged within government.”

It is a seismic paradigm shift, Haas said during a recent webinar, where he joined state and local public officials in discussing the role of cloud technology in responding to the outbreak.

“There’s one standout theme, in my opinion, in how our country is managing this pandemic: It’s the speed of our response efforts,” he said. “Governments and universities are [seeing the need to] break down traditional processes and modernize legacy systems, to ensure they are moving as quickly as possible to respond to the rapidly expanding needs of our constituents and students.”

Managing a Crisis in Real Time

As the virus first began to spread across the United States in March and April, governments were hampered by inadequate testing capabilities, which made it hard to trace community spread and difficult to convey the full danger of the outbreak to the public. Some innovative local governments leveraged existing technology to create self-reported symptoms trackers. One of the most progressive was Eagle County, Colo., which used Google’s G Suite tools and its Data Studio to create a symptom tracker and a dashboard that helped inform the county’s triage and response efforts, while also communicating the severity of the situation to the public.

“We needed a 360-degree picture outside of testing,” said Eagle County Innovation and Strategy Manager Brandon Williams on the webinar. “We knew as a team that we had limited testing; we knew there was community spread. But we knew from our earlier experience with state public health that establishing trust was going to be key to messaging a response, and also to lay the foundation for recovery.”

Eagle County’s solution, which it was able to create in a matter of hours, became a national model. The state of Colorado used it as a template for a statewide tracker. That was important for scale, said Lilo Santos, the director of Google operations in the state of Colorado’s IT department. But what was really useful was being able to slice the information and push it back out to the counties.

“The state built up a large-scale data lake of symptoms information. But from an actual action standpoint, it wasn’t helpful for us to do that, because we didn’t have the same level of visibility that the locals have for health care facilities, for tracking and testing of citizens,” he said.

The simplicity of G Suite, he said, “gave us the ability to look at stuff at a state level, but then also open it back up to the counties to then have access to their own data, so they could take action with their own citizens.”

Governments elsewhere relied on cloud technology for other crisis response efforts, Haas noted. The state of Oklahoma stood up a dashboard like Eagle County’s. Illinois deployed a Google chat bot with virtual agents to help provide citizens with answers and information about the virus. And the New York Department of Labor used Google Cloud to build a new online unemployment application, to help streamline the flood of requests from residents who lost their jobs during the shutdown.

A Better Way to Manage Internal Ops

Another positive consequence of the virus has been a shift in the way governments communicate and collaborate internally. Cloud technology has been a key part of that transition as well.

Easy-to-use cloud technology, said Williams, has allowed “agencies to quickly throw together electronic reports, where [in the past] we would have generated a PDF.” As anyone who has ever tried to view a PDF on their phone knows, that makes it difficult to exchange information.

“We’ve been generating Google Sites instead that have allowed us to pull in tools like maps, locations and dropdown menus for testing-specific information,” said Williams. It is “mobile-friendly and can be updated in real time by program staff.”

Eagle County has also used Google Sites to create on-the-fly guides for “designing training sites for emergency operations staff who may have never worked in an [emergency operations center, or EOC] before. We created a site that has YouTube videos, job aids and checklists. It gives them a sense of what their role is in an EOC in a way that they can watch before they ever step in the door. It’s very quick, gets them up to speed and gets them up and running,” he said.

Similarly, Williams’ team used G Suite to create a “county concierge” chatbot to help respond to citizens questions. It has turned out to be extremely valuable for internal staff communications, too.

By relying on its existing G Suite technologies, Williams said, Eagle County was able to implement all these collaboration solutions without new resources.

“It costs nothing – we have done exactly zero training since the beginning of March regarding Google,” he said. The simplicity of the tools has allowed the government to respond quickly. “It enabled the front line to actually design the tools that they needed,” Williams said. “That was key – there’s no middleware there.”

Empowering Change for Years to Come

Like everyone else, government agencies were massively disrupted by the coronavirus shutdowns. Shifting most of their employees to remote work required new approaches to technology and access. Many of those solutions will likely stay in place, said Eagle County Deputy Manager Angelo Fernandez.

“Moving forward, I know that myself and the other county managers here are going to keep role-modeling this. I only plan on working in the office two to three days a week,” he said on the webinar. “The business community has had this figured out for a while now, and government needs to adapt.”

The virus has changed the way local government approaches problems, and that has long-term ramifications, Fernandez said. For too long, governments have been engaged in a “one-way, almost rigid kind of communication,” he said. “We’re really focused on what we want people to hear, and not necessarily what people actually want to hear.”

Instead, he said, agencies are learning to listen to constituents – and each another. “And I think the Google suite of tools helps us do that. Through the pandemic, we have done a great job of adopting new ways of communicating. The collaboration features on Google Docs, Sheets, Slides – it’s just been a game-changer.”

Governments need those kinds of low-cost, high-impact tools to collaborate and innovate – especially in the current economic downturn. “It’s no secret our economy’s in a tailspin,” Fernandez said. “But it’s not going to stop the innovation that we’ve adopted and really need at this point.”

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