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Looking Ahead to the Long-Term Effects of COVID-19

The novel coronavirus shifted the nature of gov tech work virtually overnight, but its long-term impacts will bring even more changes as priorities change and tech offers opportunities to shape the future.

People in line while social distancing
Shutterstock/eldar nurkovic
COVID-19 has permanently altered the course of government technology. Many projects deemed necessary in January have now been postponed or even canceled. Gov tech teams have moved mountains in the past few months to enable their co-workers to continue essential operations and work remotely in many cases — all while ensuring the public can continue to conduct business. 2020 has presented unprecedented challenges, but it’s instructive to look ahead to how government teams will function differently going forward.

Suddenly, business continuity and emergency preparedness are front and center. In the past, continuity of operations plans often had to compete with more exciting and compelling initiatives for attention and funding. Leadership, elected officials and even the public will now place a higher value on disaster planning. Look for this shift to directly align with cybersecurity initiatives, which have frequently suffered the same fate as disaster preparedness, but will also have newfound respect as bad actors continue to exploit the COVID-19 chaos.

In a pre-COVID world, skepticism and trepidation often accompanied discussion about state and local government employees working remotely. Working from home has now had its moment and will mainly be here to stay. Recent studies have shown employees are spending more time working as they are spending less time commuting. It turns out that relying on specific buildings to conduct business is very risky. Cloud-based applications, virtual desktops and smartphones have transformed technology operations and made us more resilient and flexible. We’ve often thought about prepping for fires, tornadoes, flooding and other natural disasters, but a global pandemic was generally not on the radar from an IT perspective.

We will see a new focus and deep dive into technology finances and spending. Software and platforms that are not offering evident and significant impact to operations will come under financial scrutiny. Best practices like Technology Business Management that are already embraced at the federal level will likely be adopted more robustly in state and local governments. Single sign-on, multi-factor authentication and application programming interfaces will help IT shops manage sprawl, contain costs, and facilitate a more efficient and secure remote work environment.

Contactless payments and kiosks are also poised to make their mark in more government agencies. Some agencies are offering incentives for customers to sign up for electronic billing to reduce in-person and mail transactions, and collectors’ offices will look to kiosks to reduce close interaction and provide better access. Many kiosks already accept credit cards and cash to serve all residents, including those who are underbanked. Apple Pay and Google Pay will move from nice-to-haves to essentials. Digital payments, including app-based and SMS options, will continue to proliferate in the coming months.

City councils and county boards had to migrate quickly to video conferences and virtual formats in March and April. Eventually, those meetings will return to council chambers and board rooms, but they’ll look for hybrid forms over the longer term, incorporating both in-person and video options. Hybrid meeting formats accommodate a broader audience and will foster more inclusive participation from our vulnerable stakeholders. These groups may not be able to venture out in public for a long time. Besides, while weeknight meetings might not be convenient for many residents, offering an online option may open public deliberations to new (and likely more moderate) voices typically not represented in person.

A viral tweet that made the rounds in late March whimsically asked a multiple-choice question: “Who led the digital transformation at your company?” The options were CEO, CTO and COVID-19. Of course, COVID-19 was the “correct” answer. It’s funny, but also not far from the truth. Government agencies will need to re-invent themselves going forward. The upcoming months will provide an opportunity for IT leaders to continue to shine and shape the future of their organizations for years to come.

Luke Stowe is CIO and interim director of administrative services for Evanston, Ill. One of Government Technology's Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of 2018, he works to bridge the gap between technology and business practices.