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Virus Shutdown: Time for Digital Government to Prove Itself

Government IT staff and industry researchers weigh in on how digital services are meeting their moment, with office buildings closed, Web traffic spiking and applications for relief programs becoming increasingly urgent.

Birds-eye view of a city with connected points of light.
Digital attacks can cause havoc in different places all at the same time.
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Wherever government offices are shuttered during the pandemic, citizens who need to interact with them, for the most part, will do so by phone, online or not at all.

For some communities, it’s a moment that years of investment in digital services have been building toward. From business licensing and permitting to relief program applications and 311 service requests, the ability of local governments to operate online is suddenly more essential than ever, and at least a few of those governments — as well as companies that serve them — are seeing investments pay off in a historic time of need.

What’s Online and What’s on Hold

Data on how different U.S. cities and counties weathered this storm may not be available for months or years, but anecdotally, some of the largest local governments are seeing a predictable wave of online traffic. For the city of Denver, spokeswoman Chelsea Warren said in an email to Government Technology that website pageviews from March 23 to March 30 increased 39 percent from the same interval in 2019. The city’s new coronavirus subsite accounted for 12 percent of the total across various articles and resource pages, and the online services page, specifically, saw a 43 percent hike in traffic compared to this time last year.

Warren said 80 percent of the city’s staff is working remotely, excepting some involved with building plan approval, Community Planning and Development transactions, new employee onboarding and Denver County Court. She pointed out that some services had to be put on hold — adoptions at the Denver Animal Shelter, issuing new marriage licenses, vehicle renewals at the DMV, public libraries and event venues — but prior initiatives to make city services remotely accessible are helping.

“We launched our e-permits system almost three years ago, so our staff and most of our permit customers are already comfortable with online permitting,” she wrote in an email. “We haven’t seen any significant delays yet due to COVID-19, and as of right now, we are still aiming for our standard two- to four-week review times.”

Warren said the city has been “extremely versatile and creative” to maintain services for residents, but its continuity of operations plan already included ways to make digital services as effective and available as possible.

At the state level, Colorado also announced new features last week to its citizen-facing myColorado mobile app, including access to COVID-19 information, 17 additional DMV services, statewide job search, and driver license and ID renewal enhancements.

In Clark County, Nev., CIO Nadia Hansen said her office is focusing on digital engagement and social collaboration tools to maintain services, which is proving less difficult than it might have been had the city not already started preparing for telework.

“Clark County IT made a rapid transition to telework to ensure employees' health and safety. We have been preparing for months, and the current situation forced us to move quicker than we had planned,” she wrote in an email. “We are promoting our digital services (electronic plans, online business license renewals, e-payment of property taxes and others) as the primary way for our constituents and residents to continue with their operations from the comfort of their home or office.”

Likewise in the city of Los Angeles, CIO Ted Ross said present circumstances have accelerated improvements the city was already making such as work-from-home capabilities, online plan checks and business permitting. He said very few of the city’s services are totally shut down, not least of all because his office has been working for years to make more apps accessible online, and because the city’s 311 call center already had a program in place that let employees take phones home with them. In a city with about 50,000 employees, Ross said he’s up to about 11,400 registered users on the “Connect to LA City” remote-desktop protocol platform his office set up for staff.

In terms of Web traffic, Ross said he noticed a “substantial” increase in Los Angeles residents using digital services in March, roughly 30 percent, and it seems every week has brought a new issue that drove people to the city’s websites and online services.

“We have been building and digitizing our operation, and then we had to put it on steroids when it came to dealing with the pandemic, but you can really support many thousands of users all accessing at the same time from home,” he said. “We’re glad to see that many of the investments we’ve been making are coming to fruition during a very difficult time of the pandemic and having to keep city operations going.”

In an email to Government Technology, NIC CEO Harry Herington, leading one of the largest companies that helps local governments build online services, noted the unprecedented load the past few weeks have put on these capacities. He said it’s not unusual to see an 800 percent spike in online traffic, and named two specific demands that have grown rapidly.

“First, online services themselves are supporting higher traffic to offset traffic that otherwise would have been supported by government offices that are now closed,” he wrote. “Second, government leaders are moving aggressively to further expand their digital services to carry an even larger transactional load. In Maine, for example, more than 85 state and local government agencies are adding digital functionality to support expanded transaction types and secure payments.”

Herington added that there’s been a dramatic increase in demand across every type of interactive service, especially business documents such as renewals, filings and payments. He said "smart" technology such as chatbots have come in handy too, pointing to Maryland as an example: The state added COVID-19 content to its chatbot in March and sessions went up more than 500 percent, including more than 7,500 conversations the day Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the closure of non-essential businesses. Herington said more than 40 percent of Maryland’s chatbot sessions occurred outside of business hours, and the service has a 95 percent user satisfaction rating.

New research on nationwide Web traffic between early January and late March, conducted by the Internet security company Cloudflare, also found a roughly 100 percent increase in use of websites it categorized as “U.S. government resources.”

Resilience and Sustainability

Exactly what role digital services have played in each community’s resilience will be difficult to define, but the digital government company CityGrows released data this week on the landscape of digital services prior to the pandemic. In the process of doing market research from December 2019 to February 2020, the company looked at the websites of 822 mid-sized U.S. cities, each between 40,000 to 175,000 people, and made a record of which online services were and weren’t available to the public. The company decided to release the data this week in the public interest, “as a snapshot of the pre-coronavirus state of government digital services.”

Granted, they were focusing on mid-sized cities, as opposed to larger ones that usually have more resources for online services. But CityGrows researchers found the only service offered online across more than half the communities they studied was 311. About 49 percent had board and commission applications online, 44 percent had dog licensing, 33 percent had building permits, 22 percent had business licensing and 17 percent had special event permits available online.

The study found geographic disparities as well: The west coast showed a higher frequency of online service offerings, while the middle and southern states, and some upper New England areas, offered fewer online services at the municipal level.

So what should America’s cities be learning from this moment in history? What kinds of online services are holding up under pressure, and which ones need investment? The CityGrows study stopped short of giving advice, but it laid out the stakes. In its conclusion, the study said the more that citizens and public staff alike can conduct business online in a transparent and accessible way, the more adaptable their communities will be.

“The coronavirus has given everyone a chance to experience what for many Americans is their everyday life. Whether due to mobility issues, disabilities, or other circumstances, it’s not easy for constituents to complete government services. For some, the requirement to print out and mail in a PDF is difficult simply because they don’t have access to a printer. Through digitization, we have the ability to improve government accountability, efficiency and accessibility, and in doing so we’ll also be positioning our communities to be better prepared for the unexpected,” the study reads. “We anticipate that the coronavirus outbreak will accelerate the transition to digital services, largely to support the need for teams working from home and to increase resilience and flexibility for both constituents and government employees.”

The prospect of acceleration was a common refrain among sources for this story. NIC’s Herington applauded governments for launching hundreds of crucial services on short notice, but he said he was certain that a “new normal” lies on the other side of this pandemic, where daily functions continue whether offices are open or closed.

“The concept that government should be accessible 24/7, regardless of a citizen’s ability to visit a government’s office is more of a reality than ever before,” he wrote in an email. “Examples that we have seen very quickly embraced by citizens include the ability to process payments remotely, secure and renew licenses online and even to secure donations and set up apps for unique and temporary needs in the matter of minutes. Rapid response tools, and the ability to build and provide needed services outside of normal office hours, are no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for all government agencies.”

Overseeing the digital transformation of one of the most advanced cities on Earth, Los Angeles CIO Ross embraced digital services long ago, but he’s pondering a world in which everyone else has, too. He said governments everywhere are coming to the game-changing realization that most of their services, and staff for that matter, don’t have to be tied to a physical space. And given the potential effects of mass commuting on people's lives and the environment, maybe they shouldn’t be.

“If there could be a silver lining to this very difficult time, it’s that it’s challenging our preconceived notions of how work has to get done. Only until you direct many thousands of people to telecommute do you realize just how much you can get done through Google Meet, how much you can accomplish when teams come together and separate off, and how little you require face-to-face interactions to get the job done,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said about being social and interacting with people and having embedded teams, but technology has become very progressive. You can accomplish a lot with a distributed workforce, and we’re starting to see that in cities, counties and states.”

In a way, this is getting at one of the oldest promises of digital technology. In a 1974 interview with ABC, Arthur C. Clarke predicted a moment in the 21st century when computers would make it possible for people to live in one place and do their business in another: “Any businessman, any executive, could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through a device like this,” he tells a reporter in an old recording, gesturing at a giant machine next to him. “It means we won’t have to be stuck in cities. We’ll be able to live out in the country or wherever we please and still carry on interactions with human beings, as well as with other computers.”

Ross is now anticipating this status quo, with digital service delivery and telework at the crux of it — the intersection between a government that accommodates citizens and one that accommodates staff.

“I think people are going to realize … ‘Why do we have to do things the way we’ve been doing, and why have we tied work to a physical space when there are a lot of tools and capabilities that prevent that from having to happen?’” he said. “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. That’s exactly where we want to be as a city. That’s the resilience we’re looking for.”

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.