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COVID-19 Proves the Essential Nature of Government

The adjustment to life in a pandemic has not been easy, but it has shown that public-sector work is not only vital, but also flexible, and that IT has a critical role to play in ensuring organizational resilience.

The Kalamazoo City Commission met virtually on March 31, approving millions of dollars to establish a fund to help small businesses.
I’m sitting down to write this column in late April from my home office, sheltering in place, like so many millions of people across the country while we do our part to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. I do this with a houseful of nuclear family members, by now settled into a new routine of virtual work and school at the elementary, high school and college levels. Though there is competition for quiet workspaces, we realize our good fortune. We are healthy and able to adjust and continue our work and our studies online.

The pandemic and the widespread closures it has wrought have brought a few ideas into sharp focus. One of the biggest is the fact that government cannot close. While there has rightly been much deliberation over critical versus less-critical services, government for the most part has had to figure out how to adapt and quickly stand up new ways to do its work and deliver services to citizens.

It hasn’t been easy. The most obvious example has been the enormous strain put on state unemployment systems, both by the massive spikes in pandemic-related claims and changes to eligibility rules that have been ushered in right alongside them.

CIOs in every city, county and state have had to quickly enable remote work for large segments of their workforce. And not all had pre-pandemic foundations to start from. Telecommuting, after all, is a relatively new concept for the public sector. Will people work as hard without bosses nearby? How can we measure productivity? Will we lose the spirit of teamwork that comes with regular in-office interaction?

But effective use of productivity and collaboration tools is proving to even the most skeptical among us that though remote work is different, it can actually offer some advantages: better work-life balance (goodbye traffic-filled commute to the office) and increased productivity because of fewer in-office distractions.

This new normal has also prompted a notable wave of digital government services. The use of e-signature tools is on the rise to enable the routing of forms and contracts from distant locations. And the closing of in-person service counters has prompted the conversion of paper processes to digital forms that can be filed online. There are many other such examples.

Another takeaway from this time is first-hand experience for policymakers in the importance of modern, reliable tech tools. Though many were already coming around to this idea, there’s nothing like first-hand exposure to a less-than-optimal remote work/meeting setup to reinforce the importance of well-funded IT infrastructure. 

And though the funding picture going forward is anything but certain given the catastrophic economic losses brought about by widespread closures, the CIO will certainly be a key player in preparing government organizations for a more resilient next chapter.

Our story "Virus Shutdown: Time for Digital Government to Prove Itself" looks in more depth at how prepared government was for a crisis at this scale and how well it has adapted. Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross noted that the city is benefiting from the tools it had in place to weather a massively disruptive event. It turns out there was good reason for all that disaster recovery/continuity-of-operations planning.

“Imagine it’s an earthquake or a fire. Something could physically happen to my call center, my building, and I could still run the operation,” Ross said. “That’s exactly where we want to be as a city. That’s the resilience we’re looking for.”

Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.