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A Crisis-Forged Framework for Public Innovation (Contributed)

The COVID-19 crisis continues to prove that government can modernize quickly, respond to problems agilely and build innovative digital solutions to navigate an uncertain future as we move toward a new normal.

The global pandemic continues to threaten the public health and welfare of communities around the world. Yet like many global problems, from food insecurity to financial instability to flooding, the impact of COVID-19 manifests in hyperlocal ways. Communities and towns face the immediate burden of working to combat outbreaks, like COVID-19, and disasters, like hurricanes or wildfires. Over the course of 2020, we’ve seen local governments step up to meet the needs of their constituents in both new and traditional ways. 

American public-sector success in confronting the pandemic, while still very much a work in progress, can be distilled into three areas: 1) implementing rapid response infrastructure; 2) cultivating an agency culture of agility; and 3) continuing to build digital capabilities and tools to navigate an uncertain future. 

Responding rapidly, responsibly

In another era — more specifically, last year — much of the public sector was outfitted with legacy technologies and lengthy procurement processes that required months of planning, budgeting, implementation and testing to advance digital transformation efforts. Everything changed overnight in March, however, when it became clear COVID-19 was penetrating American borders and impacting local communities from coast to coast. 

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that despite massive challenges and dire moments, some things work like they should — especially when people, companies and governments have access to the right tools, at the right time, to help make a difference. In this case, it was the cloud, with providers like Google, Apple, Oracle, Zoom, Amazon, Granicus and dozens of others rushing to the call of a world in need. Amid confusion, chaos and uncertainty, technology providers turned on a dime to outfit organizations across sectors, geographies and industries with digital tools that could help keep pace with the contactless government demands of the crisis. 

Months into the pandemic, many government agencies are in a better place. They have stood up new digital services, from offering social services to driver's licenses renewals online, and they’ve adapted citizen engagement approaches that embrace speed and federated, shared content creation rather than shying away from it in the name of decades-long tradition. Across the public sector, governments accelerated digital transformation and tech implementation — rolling out five-year road maps in five weeks, as one agency defined it. Many delivered on the promise of revolutionized and fully digital operations. And in doing so, these same governments have dismantled the belief that the public sector doesn’t have the DNA to move quickly. 

Modernizing from aging approaches to government agility

Organizations everywhere were forced to reinvent, rethink and revamp how they work within days of the pandemic going global, as their people set up shop from home. State and local governments, in particular, needed to transition from traditionally static or largely analog processes to digitally accessible forums and services. This shift not only sparked a mass movement within the public sector toward digitization, but shook the foundations of something that, until this year, had largely remained unchanged: the government meeting. 

For hundreds of years, government meetings have been a central pillar of the democratic process. When the pandemic hit, however, those forums were disrupted in an instant — at a time when fluid discourse and decision-making were arguably never more important in our nation‘s history. Major policy questions with major community implications were held in the balance: Should we close schools, offices, restaurants, parks? Should we enforce the use of face masks? How should emergency funds be utilized? How should we communicate public health and safety measures to the public? Under what circumstances will we remain closed, open or reclose our infrastructure?

In order to bring the right people together to find the answers, agencies across the nation stepped up and invested in tools, technologies and platforms to connect online — especially during the initial lockdown. A main goal was to continue community-impacting business as usual while maintaining Sunshine Laws and public participation. Many achieved this by holding policy discussions, official addresses, agency briefings and legislative sessions over video conferencing tools, such as Webex and Zoom. Today, agencies from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Harrisburg, Pa., benefit from the digital civic engagement via cloud-delivered solutions. 

As we enter colder months and the pandemic persists, agencies across the U.S. are now funneling resources into the development of new capabilities and advancement of digital transformation efforts guided by long-term road maps and sustainable transformation strategies. In addition to citizen-facing portals that define all interactions with agencies and improved internal processes driving efficiency, agencies are delivering on the promise of incremental improvement. In the process, they’re shifting to offer mutually beneficial alternatives to analog government services, from applying for unemployment benefits to filling out the 2020 Census, that fit the needs of communities facing adversity. At the center of it all: agility. 

Advancing innovation progress to prepare for an uncertain future

As 2020 comes to a close, it’s clear the "new normal" we were talking about as lockdowns were implemented this past spring is now just normal. For the public sector, in particular, the pandemic sparked a shift in how government services and operations are delivered to communities, and it’s taken digital government to a new and promising level of digitization. Governments now have a responsibility to build on that progress by drawing from best practices shared between agencies and implementing digital platforms or tools proven to transform the very fundamentals of government service. 

In practice, America’s public sector needs to focus on advancing digital operations, services and capabilities to continue to deliver accessible and operational tools and platforms that enable staff productivity and serve communities safely and efficiently. They need to rapidly respond to dynamic situations and plan for crises to pop up at a moment’s notice. Agencies need to share what’s working with each other so as many communities as possible can make informed improvements to government service delivery, information sharing and civic engagement. 

This pandemic changed everything. It accelerated innovation in the face of stark challenges impacting daily life, public health and economic welfare in communities around the world. Here in the U.S., we have a long way to go to realize the full potential of digital government and civic engagement. That said, the past few months give hope that local- and state-level progress will be shared and improved with help from federal agencies as we enter 2021, launching a new era of government that’s more connected within and between agencies and with citizens. I’m optimistic and confident there’s nowhere to go but forward.

Susan Ganeshan is the chief marketing officer of Granicus, a provider of cloud-based citizen engagement technologies and services.