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COVID-19 Pushes Digital Services from Luxury to Necessity

For many jurisdictions, moving citizen services online was a long-term, “nice-to-have” project, but the pandemic forced new ways to bring city hall to the people, rather than the people to city hall.

Closeup of the hands of someone paying online on a tablet with a credit card.
So much of American life was pushed out of physical spaces and onto the Internet this year, including the vast majority of local government services. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and resultant social distancing guidelines, seemingly overnight it became dangerous to wait in line at city hall, or to interact with a public servant in close proximity across the space of a traditional counter.

As a result, long-simmering governmental efforts to modernize and make services digital in 2020 were supercharged. For digital government services, the danger of the virus was like a turbo boost for a race car that had been lazily chugging along. Indeed, public-sector entities at state and local levels have sought to catch up to private companies online for years, struggling to offer a modern customer experience to constituents with projects that have ranged from online permit renewal to 24-hour chatbots. With the pandemic, providing digital services fast moved from luxury to necessity.

As a result, jurisdictions across the country deployed agile approaches to accelerating the work, in some cases moving quickly to create projects from scratch.

A great example of the former at the state level took place in Vermont, specifically within that state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The Vermont DMV was already working to launch a new online driver’s license renewal platform, one that would enable residents there to avoid in-person trips to the office. The pandemic made the timing of that launch ideal, finally giving users a digital option they could use from home.

And the Vermont DMV is far from alone. There were others at the state level that worked on and debuted new online processes as well. Maryland, for example, managed to stand up a new online grant application in the early days of the crisis, doing so in just eight hours. Digitization efforts like this have traditionally taken far longer, but agencywide buy-in was fostered here by COVID-19. Armed with this, the Maryland Department of Information Technology (DoIT) was able to rapidly collaborate with the state’s Department of Commerce to add new small business grant application functionality to a platform the IT shop had launched for a different purpose back in early 2018.

At the city level, Buffalo, N.Y., managed the similarly speedy task of transitioning its 311 infrastructure to be remote-operated as its city staff moved to work-from-home operations. In that instance, City Hall was vacated in the service of social distancing on a Friday, and by the following Monday, the IT shop had 311 up and running again via remote operation, doing so again with a collaboration, this time with the University of Buffalo and Cisco.

That collaborative element is really the other key piece of the civic tech and government digitization story in 2020. If the first part is that the pandemic created a new need to fast-track long-simmering service modernizations, the second is that help came from all different sectors. In addition to academia, other government agencies and the private sector, civic tech volunteerism also rose to help meet some of the new challenges faced by government needing to maintain services.

This was perhaps best exemplified by the formation of U.S. Digital Response, a nonprofit volunteer collaborative that involved roughly 3,500 tech experts from various parts of the country, all of whom volunteered to help. Similarly, New York state marshalled some 25,000 volunteer hours focused on COVID-19 response in its Technology SWAT Partnership.

In the end though, the real story of the tech response to COVID-19 in 2020 may still be waiting to be told, centered as it is around a number of questions: How much of this new work will outlast the pandemic? Will the buy-in and prioritization for digitizing government remain when the crisis has ended? And of the scores of volunteers dedicating time to help out, how many will stay permanently involved in gov tech? These are topics GT will continue to consider as the calendar turns to 2021.

This story is part of our 2020 Year in Review series.


Civic Tech
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.