From online public meetings to chatbots, the COVID-19 pandemic made tech-enabled government communication a must-have. How can we keep the momentum going in a post-COVID world?
Remember the time before the word "pandemic" was a mainstay in everyday conversations? For many years leading up to 2020 when the “new normal” began, the gov tech industry had rapidly evolved to equip government with better tools for customer service and community engagement. Local government organizations were starting to adopt technology, striving to embrace innovation and establish an ROI to make sense of it all with limited resources and ever-increasing demand for services.
Meanwhile, governments were building or growing communications teams. As social media evolved, so did these job roles. Many municipalities suffered from “shiny object syndrome,” thinking they had to be everywhere at once to reach their diverse communities. New platforms were “gifted” to communications teams, which spread them even thinner. Work/life balance was in jeopardy. Communications roles transitioned from part-time to full-time to all the time. Questions were going unanswered, hold times were getting longer, frustration was growing and customer service suffered. Communities were already underserved, and communications teams were already maxed out.
And then the pandemic hit, which took a challenging situation and amplified it.
It was Tuesday, March 10, when Boulder, Colo., sent its first communication about COVID-19 via text message. Within a week, the country began to shut down. I had a revelation: “This is happening everywhere, and we need to help local governments communicate better than ever to get the word out about the rapidly changing situation.” The importance of local government had never been so apparent in providing an avalanche of critical information to various constituencies. It was a mad dash for my team, as we all had the same question: “How can we help?”
Accordingly, every conversation with local government was centered on “How do we become more connected and better engaged with our communities, especially our lower-income neighborhoods?” This was a stated priority pre-pandemic, but became even more urgent as underserved communities faced job loss and had increased needs. Those communities that many local governments were focused on serving better became even more vulnerable.
Local governments had to improvise, be nimble and respond to the increasing demand for information and services while providing solutions for real-time problems. All while facing budget cuts, hiring freezes, and navigating ever-changing operations and restrictions.
Residents were searching for localized, real-time information and services, and had placed their trust in the local government. Leaders innovated to address the urgent challenges facing their communities. Communications took an all-hands approach.
Government organizations had to go virtual overnight, from something as “simple” as enabling a remote workforce to transitioning public meetings to video conferences and taking permitting processes online.
Although it was (and remains) a challenging time, many government organizations rose to the occasion by adopting technologies that were long overdue. The CARES Act enabled them to take their technology plan off the shelf, expedite procurement processes and acquire new technologies like work management software, virtual line queue applications, and text, chatbot and live chat communication platforms.
There were some silver linings amid the chaos: Employee attendance improved, hold times were reduced, residents were empowered to take advantage of self-service options and service requests were streamlined. Communications were no longer one-to-one, they were one-to-many. For once, it wasn’t just the vocal minority that attended public meetings like clockwork — it was a cross-section of the community, engaging with government on their own terms.
Adding to the ongoing pandemic-related communications and innovation, the next challenge will be the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, as the federal government has relied upon state and local officials to handle distribution and spread awareness and adoption.
Local governments are being asked again to educate their communities and be the all-important information providers, even as budget cuts undermine efforts to raise public awareness. Those that will be successful in raising awareness will need to deploy a combination of technology, plus traditional, digital and grassroots marketing efforts.
This is a moment we must seize as government technology professionals. It is a jolt, long overdue, that pushed the sector into action. Now, as local governments are reviewing what worked and what hasn’t, and whether they should continue to support these newly employed technologies, they are in the process of establishing ROI, which is even more important with the budget uncertainty of the coming year.
According to Deloitte, government has and will pass through three overlapping phases when navigating the COVID-19 crisis: respond, recover and thrive. “At each phase, government’s guiding metric should be its impact on people," Deloitte reports. "In the short term, this means a focus on containment, treatment and economic survival. In the medium term, the goal will shift toward economic recovery and a return to normal conditions. In the long term, we should hope to emerge better prepared to adapt to this — or any — type of crisis, and better positioned to promote the well-being of our citizens.”
It’s our time to thrive. Without a doubt, local governments have changed forever, and I maintain that they will be stronger for it. They will learn from the velocity that our world’s existential pressure turned upside down and thrust upon them because of COVID-19 and apply those lessons to move faster in the future.
What has become apparent more now than ever is the need for resident-centered infrastructure. We can’t hire our way out of this — technology is the answer to scaling and modernizing government customer service and resident engagement.
This evolution driven by necessity will force local governments to be less reactive and more strategic, setting their own objectives and bringing innovation into the decision-making conversations, not as an afterthought.
Bratton Riley is the founder/CEO of Citibot, a writer, speaker and champion for equitable government engagement. His mission is to create innovative technology powered by artificial intelligence and educate and inspire government leaders to transform the way they engage residents and connect with their communities.
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