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Time Running Out to Use CARES Funds for Tech (Contributed)

Dec. 31 is the deadline for states to use their $1.25 billion federal CARES Act dollars to improve digital services, closing technology gaps and making critical public health information more accessible.

digital city
Shutterstock/Andrey VP
As a global pandemic and economic crisis continue moving through neighborhoods block by block, it’s never been more clear that people need access to trustworthy and accurate information. A rare injection of U.S. federal government funding to state governments through the CARES Act — with a deadline of Dec. 30, 2020 attached — offers a fleeting chance to invest in digital transformation and make accurate information more accessible. State governments must swiftly put the minimum $1.25 billion per state funding toward initiatives that deliver critical information powered by technology and, in the process, enhance community public health and economic resilience in the face of the pandemic.

Gaining public trust and improving digital engagement

Wavering trust in the U.S. federal government and the media during the COVID-19 pandemic poses distinctly American challenges to combating the virus with the right social distancing, public health and personal safety measures. State governments, for their part, have a unique opportunity to provide critical information and digital resources to communities in COVID-19’s path. However, they need to navigate budget constraints, mostly virtual policy debates and varying community perspectives on the trustworthiness of a vaccine — as well as several other public health considerations from racial disparity to vulnerabilities among the elderly. 

Through the course of working to engage more constituents, state government leaders need to develop an understanding of where people across the country already access information — commonly online through Google searches, smartphone applications, voice-powered devices like Alexa and Web-based resources. 

CARES Act funding offers state governments a unique opportunity to meet people where they increasingly are and bring a long tradition of in-person service and transparency online as well. Efforts should be centered around creating or developing new applications or digital resources that deliver clarity and transparency to communities in the market for bulletproof information about COVID-19 and other issues. 

In the process, state government leaders should allocate CARES Act funding toward improving and streamlining the digital infrastructure they already have, or are in the process of adopting. 

Accessing and securing federal funding can be complicated, but state governments should view the relative straightforwardness and flexibility of CARES Act funding as a once-in-a-lifetime procurement opportunity. They should keep in mind that any funds received through the CARES Act (and, likely, any subsequent COVID-related legislation) have an end date: Dec. 30, 2020. Unless subsequent legislation or executive action says otherwise, the allocated funding will return to the U.S. Treasury if states fail to use it by the deadline. 

Consequently, state government leaders should mobilize some funding for COVID-19 response and immediate community impact. At the same time, they should actively survey opportunities to procure and adopt new technologies and digital platforms in the near-term that advance the digitization of citizen services for years to come. 

Although the current version of the second funding bill, the HEROES Act, appears to be off the table until after the election, a key provision is worth noting: a timeline extension for expending funds gained through the CARES Act — in some cases, until December 2021. This suggests that any new funding to states and localities may not come with as strict of a deadline, but only time will tell. 

Sprinting toward December

The world is facing a truly unprecedented situation as the general public continues to learn more about the novel coronavirus in parallel with the very public health experts, epidemiologists and medical researchers working to contain it. At the same time, it’s tough for millions of people without health backgrounds to keep up with an evolving list of COVID-19 public health measures and considerations. 

Americans, in particular, increasingly turn to non-government sources of information from family members to social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, that leave millions vulnerable to misinformation. Between now and Dec. 30, states need to step up by putting CARES Act funding toward digital transformation efforts that fill trust and technology gaps while delivering accurate, clear information. 

Kyle Tuberson is chief technology officer of Public Sector, and Kim McCarley is vice president and Federal Health Market leader at ICF, a global consultancy.