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New York Organizes Giant Public-Private Effort to Meet COVID

The first of its kind, the state’s Technology SWAT Partnership completed 40 tech projects in a matter of months with the help of 25,000 hours of labor from private partners at no taxpayer expense.

by / September 2, 2020
Shutterstock/Marharyta Kuzminova

Of all 50 states, New York, as much as any, got a crash course in adapting to COVID-19.

When statewide infections jumped from dozens of cases on March 10 to more than 75,000 in three weeks, businesses and offices closed, hospitals were strained, and people needed information constantly and immediately. For the Office of Information Technology Services and the Department of Financial Services, that meant recruiting private-sector partners for an all-hands-on-deck project the likes of which the state — and perhaps any state — had never quite mounted before.

They called it the COVID-19 Technology SWAT Partnership, which completed 40 projects over the past three months, from informational websites to screening applications to training workshops. The intention was to mobilize as many talents and resources as possible to bolster the state’s response to unprecedented need — for data, digital services, announcements, guidance.

The result facilitated 49 million interactions between state government and citizens, and it saved taxpayers as much as $14 million through 25,000 hours of volunteer support from employees in the private sector, according to ITS.

ITS spokesperson Scott Reif told Government Technology that two-way conversations with tech groups started in March, followed by a formal process of reaching out and asking businesses for assistance. He said his department had no particular model or precedent to follow, but it didn’t hurt to have prior relationships with companies that were eager to pitch in.

“We had had some initial conversations with companies that reached out and said, ‘How can we help?’ That’s how the idea sort of sprung,” he said. “We talked a bit to the governor’s office about it, and (interim CIO) Jeremy Goldberg was told, ‘Go for it,’ so we put out solicitation, he utilized his contacts, as others did here, and called out for assistance.”

Reif said they got more offers than they could use. According to a news release on the state’s website, the Tech SWAT effort recruited 7,300 volunteers from 3,500 different organizations. What followed was a combination of planning ahead and adapting as they went, forming volunteer teams of industry professionals and state staff, mostly from ITS, working in 30- to 90-day sprints to help the state with operations, analytics and other technological applications to deliver citizen and COVID-related services. Out of 40 technology projects, 19 were delivered pro-bono from private partners, and the other 21 entirely by ITS, the Digital and Media Services office and other internal staff.

Pro-bono projects included work with Microsoft on a statewide COVID-19 screening platform so residents could self-screen for symptoms, schedule a COVID-19 test and receive results from one of the state’s testing sites; work with Google and Castlight to create and update a comprehensive map of more than 750 COVID-19 and antibody testing sites across the state; and partnering with Microsoft, Mastercard, Square and Codecademy for a series of training workshops for state employees in ITS, the NY Digital Service team and other agencies to improve digital services and boost engagement while working remotely.

ITS staff-led projects included, for example, redesigning cloud-hosted, mobile-accessible applications for unemployment insurance and pandemic unemployment assistance; a statewide data dashboard to report COVID-19 cases, locations, recoveries and other data points by demographics and other key factors; and the New York Forward website, which offers guidance to businesses for reopening, and to citizens for tracking regional reopening announcements.

Many of these are detailed in an 11-page “progress report” on the state’s website.

One of the first and most central projects was an informational website, coronavirus.health.ny.gov, which the SaaS Web content management company Acquia helped the state set up in three days. Joshua Smith, an account manager for public sector at Acquia, said in an email that one of the things the state did right was minimize bureaucratic red tape for making tweaks and improvements where necessary.

“New York also benefited from having already invested in (an) enterprise-scale, yet adaptable platform for consolidated management of its website properties,” he said. “Setting the solid foundation in advance helped New York be ready to respond in its moment of urgency.”

Smith said Acquia also worked with ITS to rearchitect the most-used parts of the Department of Labor website to achieve faster page loads and quicker content updates, helping to accommodate a 200 percent increase in traffic to those sites.

For other governments that may want or need to mount a similarly massive public-private collaboration in the future, the state of New York published a 14-page playbook, a how-to of guidelines and recommendations. It breaks down the state’s process, from identifying critical projects to drafting agreements, communications, metrics and project templates, but distills the thinking behind it to one “golden rule:" prioritize easing the burden on front-line workers above all else.

Reif said one way for governments to do that is to avail themselves of public-private partnerships when possible.

“There was such a need to have a surge of expertise, of resources, so we were glad to have those companies available to do that, and willing to do that,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of after-the-fact thinking … and certainly we would like to go back to these companies if there is a second wave, if we were to need additional assistance. I think everybody hopes not to have to do that.”

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Andrew Westrope Staff Writer

Andrew Westrope is a staff writer for Government Technology. Before that, he was a reporter and editor at community newspapers for seven years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.


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