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No-Contact Government Means More than Just Online Services

From enabling digital paper forms and mobile payments to implementing facial recognition and delivery drones, touchless government services are the way forward in continuing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

people on a street being recognized by technology
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, many organizations are dramatically rethinking their operations to ensure physical distancing, from professional sports leagues creating quarantine bubbles for their players to the music and film industries offering performances at drive-in theaters. As the global pandemic stretches into the fall with no clear end in sight, public-sector agencies must similarly wrestle with how to safely reopen government operations while protecting the health and safety of government employees and citizens. Achieving this will require government leaders to focus on a new objective: using technology to design a touchless future.

Part of the solution will entail shifting more government operations online. Government employees should be able to telework if they can perform their tasks remotely, and agencies need to continue to invest in the IT resources, including moving to the cloud, and training to allow them to do so securely and effectively. In addition, government agencies should migrate more services online to both reduce the need for face-to-face interactions and increase efficiency and convenience. For example, government agencies should use the pandemic to finally replace all paper forms with digital ones and upgrade outdated online services to mobile-friendly ones.

But government cannot achieve a touchless, or limited-touch, future through online services alone. In addition, agencies should consider the myriad ways technology can reduce face-to-face interactions when people must leave their homes. In this regard, other sectors offer many early examples of the possibilities. For example, restaurants are offering no-contact delivery, hotels are offering no-contact check-in, and airports are offering no-contact security screening and bag drop.

Consider some of the possibilities for government:

  • Facial recognition technology can integrate with automated gates to quickly check the identification of workers and visitors to government buildings without the need for direct contact with security guards and to reduce crowding at entrances.
  • Thermal cameras can detect elevated body temperatures in real time, quickly screening individuals for COVID-19 symptoms. Manually taking the temperature of individuals exposes people to more physical contact and can be a slow and tedious process.
  • Automated speed and red-light camera enforcement can bring down the number of traffic accidents and injuries while also reducing the need for police officers to make traffic stops.
  • Mobile payment technology can enable residents to pay for city services, from parking to pet licenses, from their mobile devices without touching any foreign surfaces.
  • Self-service kiosks with speech recognition can allow individuals to access city information and services while eliminating the need for multiple users to share the same touchscreen.
  • Autonomous disinfection robots can sanitize public spaces and other government-operated facilities without exposing janitorial staff to potential infection.
  • Autonomous delivery drones can reduce face-to-face contact while distributing small packages.
  • Smart building features, from lights that turn on automatically to hand washing stations with automatic sensors, can both reduce the spread of germs and increase efficiency.
Touchless government is not something many agencies have planned or prepared for, but it is an emerging opportunity that will require agencies to become more familiar with automation, sensors, robotics and analytics. Gaining greater experience with these technologies will help them not only address immediate health concerns during the pandemic, but also boost productivity, all while gaining important expertise that will serve these agencies well as they continue to leverage technology to improve government services in the future.

Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.