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N.M., R.I. Officials Talk COVID-19 Tech at Salesforce Summit

Private- and public-sector leaders from around the world extolled the virtues of technology in creating safe, adaptable environments in a digital government summit Thursday organized by Salesforce.

Salesforce logo on San Francisco headquarters
Salesforce's headquarters in San Francisco
Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology
Government officials from Rhode Island, New Mexico and Florida gathered virtually July 16 at an event organized by Salesforce and including more than a dozen guests from the private and public sectors to talk about the role technology has played in their response to COVID-19.

Collectively, they painted a picture of how essential cloud technology and agile systems are — for preparedness, management and telework, and eventually reopening.

Embracing Technology

Speaking for one of the relative success stories in meeting COVID-19 at the state level, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is overseeing a response that has led to fewer than 100 new confirmed cases a day almost every day for the past month, according to the state’s data portal. She said she took early, decisive steps and viewed the pandemic not just as a public health challenge but also a technological one, given the telework, data and testing she knew would be necessary to confront it.

“It seemed very clear early on that meeting the needs of the COVID crisis was all about speed. … If the virus moves quickly and outruns you, it’s very hard to regain your footing,” she said. “If you have to move fast, you have to be innovative, you have to scale, then you have to embrace technology.”

Raimondo said Rhode Island has tested a number of people equivalent to nearly 30 percent of its population, with a positive test rate of about 2 percent, even with restaurants and beaches now open. She attributed much of this success to contact tracing — the process of interviewing every person who tests positive and then alerting everyone they recently came into contact with — which can only be done at scale with the help of technology. Apple, Google, MIT and state governments have been piloting their own contact-tracing apps and programs in recent months, with some success but also privacy concerns. Salesforce is pitching one on its platform to help agencies get employees back to work by tracing their interactions and health through phone surveys.

“Contact tracing was absolutely vital,” Raimondo said. “As you know, one of the things we’re all tracking is the rate of spread — how many other people an infected person infects. We want to do that as well as possible, and the only way to do that is when somebody tests positive, to immediately reach out and touch everyone they’ve had contact with.”

Dave Rey, Salesforce’s president of global public sector, backed up Raimondo on all of this. He called COVID-19 a “perfect storm” of demands on digital government, requiring speed, 24/7 availability, security and scalability to millions of citizens. Almost overnight, governments were dealing with supply chain disruptions, hospital capacity issues, exploding unemployment, emergency business loans, scheduling problems, limited tests and contact tracing.

Rey pointed out that digital transformation — which he defined as putting all government services on the Internet in such a way that citizens can serve themselves and find all forms, use electronic signatures and follow up afterward — went from “nice to have” to essential, in short order. He said Salesforce helped deploy dozens of those systems in the past few months, and he suggested bullet points to help such fast modernizations succeed: private-public partnerships; the use of a low-code, cloud-based platform that can deploy fast, at scale, even to millions of users; keeping data in one place so leaders can have what they need to make decisions; and using an agile platform that can integrate with older systems, because sometimes government can’t modernize everything at once.

All that said, Raimondo was sanguine about what it could mean for state and local governments to embrace technological revolution: no more snow days thanks to remote learning, no more lines at the DMV and unemployment claims processed faster, among other things.

“The bad news is, it took a crisis for us to move so quickly. The good news is, on the other side of it, if we embrace technology, Rhode Islanders will be better for it. Their experience, I think, with government will be more streamlined and effective and efficient,” she said. “If we are smart — and that’s a big ‘if’ — we can build a fair, more inclusive, more resilient economy. Right now, we come together as a nation, public and private, and make the right investments in technology, training and people, we can lay the groundwork for decades of productivity which includes everyone. But it does embrace doing things differently and being honest about the fact that a lot of people have been left behind in the past.”

Preparing to Reopen 

On the sheer scale of change required to meet the “new normal” of digital services and answering citizen needs online, New Mexico’s Sue Anne Athens, chief information officer for the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions, said it took an exponential shift in staff.

“We were handling 3,000 to 4,000 calls on a weekly basis, and this increased to hundreds of thousands of calls a day, peaking at over 900,000 calls in a single day,” she said.

Athens had to borrow staff from other agencies, hire temporary agents and increase call center capacity threefold in less than two weeks, which was only possible because she had access to Salesforce’s cloud-based contact system. Still unable to answer every question, her department set up chatbots, one of which ended up taking almost 100,000 interactions in the first week.

Even these iterative steps were possible, she said, because the state had an agile technology stack, and it had transformed its old mainframe system for unemployment claims to a Web-based platform in 2013. Since then it had overhauled its call-center systems with cloud technology, enabling it to scale quickly when crisis demanded it earlier this year.

Besides cloud tech and agile systems, she recommended focusing on people: everything from user-centered design to an agency culture that views government employees as public servants.

“I think I would advise public servants and government agencies to work toward agility and drop their bureaucracy,” she said. “You need to focus on the service, use your resources, create partnerships in order to face challenges that will continue to arise, and face what we think is going to be a very different future of work, and government service.”

On the subject of bringing people back to their offices safely, Salesforce Executive Vice President of Global Real Estate Elizabeth Pinkham talked about more hands-on steps. Best practices like office cleaning, installing glass barriers between workstations, having people fill out daily wellness surveys, communicating with one another and scheduling staggered arrival times so people aren’t crowding halls and elevators are common recommendations.

Kevin Guthrie, deputy director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, said his agency is swabbing people every Monday and Thursday, questioning them about where they’ve been and what they’ve done, trying to reduce the turnaround time for COVID tests and making sure first responders have personal protective equipment. But he said data-based management and contact tracing software will be essential everywhere.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.