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WATCH: How the Pandemic Taught Governments to Think Small

New technologies and a nimbler mindset have transformed how states and localities address disruption.

This recorded interview is part of Leading in Crisis, an ongoing initiative from Government Technology, the Center for Digital Government and Oracle to highlight some of the incredible leadership and innovations in state and local government in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

To view the full interview, please click here.

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The coronavirus pandemic required a massive, coordinated response from government and the implementation of widespread new approaches unprecedented in scope.

But the ongoing crisis has also shown the importance of thinking small. For state and local governments in particular, the disruptions of the pandemic have led to new ways of thinking about the challenges they face. Public-sector organizations are reframing the way they implement technological solutions for both internal and external processes – from standing up IT chatbots to meet surging demands from a remote public workforce, to creating touchless kiosks for the public to pay utility bills.

In this video interview, Government Technology Content Studio Chief Editor Zach Patton spoke with Celeste O’Dea, business development director for the public sector at Oracle, about what governments have learned as a result of the pandemic, and how they’re utilizing those insights as they pivot from the immediate pandemic response to longer-term strategic planning for the months and years ahead.

The most important aspects, according to O’Dea? Think in “bite-sized chunks” and quick wins, and use that approach to be as nimble as possible.

Edited transcript:

Patton: Hello, and welcome to another conversation on Leading in Crisis, part of an ongoing initiative from Government Technology and the Center for Digital Government. In this series of interviews, we've been taking a look at some of the leading innovations in state and local government in response to the coronavirus pandemic. I'm Zach Patton, the chief editor for the Content Studio here at Government Technology.

So far in this series, we've highlighted some specific initiatives that local governments have put in place in response to the pandemic. Today, though, we want to look forward, and turn our attention to the months and years that lie ahead. So we're talking with someone who has a real national perspective on all of this, Celeste O’Dea. Celeste is a business development director for the public sector at Oracle, which has helped make this series of interviews possible. Celeste works with agencies, departments and governments across the U.S. and Canada to identify, operationalize and implement integrated technology strategies.

Celeste, thank you so much for joining us today.

O’Dea: Thanks, Zach, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Patton: States and localities are at an important inflection point right now. They're pivoting from their initial response to the pandemic crisis and starting to look ahead to the longer-term challenges and implications in the months and years to come. From your perspective, how have the events of 2020 reframed the issues for states and localities?

O’Dea: I think we can all agree 2020 has been a unique year, right? And it's not yet over, so who knows what's still to come in the last few months. Governments have always been challenged to deliver services to their constituents. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted their need to be more nimble in the whole conversation. The challenges they face have been amplified or magnified. And then you layer in a fair number of natural disasters on top of the pandemic -- fires in California, hurricanes in the South. There's been a compilation of things that formed kind of a perfect storm.

What they’re finding is that the ability to be nimble is the new paradigm for them. They've always been good at understanding what their constituents need, what their customers need and trying to find innovative ways to deliver it with constrained budgets. As we go forward, budget constraints are going to continue.

But again, for the public sector at large – whether we’re talking about states or localities, K-12 education, higher education – the ability to be nimble, to react quickly to the challenges they're faced with, is going to be critical.

Patton: The ability to be nimble and to react quickly is not necessarily something that has been a hallmark of state and local government [in the past]. Are there specific examples that come to your mind as success stories?

O’Dea: Yeah, absolutely. This series has already highlighted several of those. I'll just call out a few that I think are really kind of good indicators of the ability to be nimble. And when I say nimble, I think it's also about the ability to kind of think smaller in some level: How can I do something that's a little bit more bite-sized that can add discernible value quickly?

We’ve got a couple of great stories that we've heard out there throughout this challenging time, one is in the state of Oklahoma.

One of the biggest things that's happened for public sector at large is this work-from-home concept. It's not natural business operations for them. Typically, they're brick-and-mortar, in your four walls, delivering the services to the people that you serve.

When they had to shift to be fully remote, they didn't necessarily have the infrastructure – the human infrastructure and the technological infrastructure – in place to support that as effectively as maybe they could have.

In Oklahoma, one of the things they discovered quickly was when everybody was working from home, the number of call center inquiries spiked. IT support [requests] spiked, and their ability to react to those was understandably challenged.

They were able to in eight days – that right there alone, to say they deployed something in eight days is somewhat mind-blowing, right? – so in eight days they deployed a chatbot that lets them help to triage those IT help desk calls. Their calls tripled during this challenging time, and they were able to react and respond very quickly.

And then they complemented that. [Along with] the work-from-home challenge, they’re also dealing with funding challenges and administrative [challenges such as] being able to track hours, being able to track purchases that are directly correlated to COVID. And they similarly built a mobile app that will able them to track those hours and purchases related to their COVID efforts.

So again, two bite-sized things they were able to deploy quickly that had a material impact on their operations.

Patton: I love that, thinking smaller to attack the challenges you can.

O’Dea: Absolutely. So that was an internal-facing thing for Oklahoma. But we also have done in Jackson, Mississippi, something that's a little bit more external-facing.

You know, even in these challenging times, people still need to be able to pay the bills. They’ve got to pay their utility bills, their water bills, what have you.

[So Jackson set up] kiosks to facilitate bill payments from their citizens. It's a touchless response, so they don't have to put the public-sector workforce frontline with the general populace who may or may not be symptomatic.

Patton: Those citizen-facing service delivery mechanisms, like kiosks or chatbots, are things that a year ago, a lot of governments would have thought, “Well, that's a nice thing to have. That would be kind of cool.” And we've seen that shift so quickly from this nice-to-have to an absolutely integral part of citizen service delivery.

O’Dea: Public sector oftentimes gets a bad rap: You know, they're process-heavy, they're bureaucratic. There's that general thought process out there that that's how government functions.

Government does not really want to function that way! They're [typically] constrained by their own processes. I think the silver lining, if you will, of this perfect storm of issues is it has made them think outside the box.

It's forced them to challenge the norm of how they execute.

Patton: Part of that relates to how public-sector organizations are thinking about their private-sector partner relationships. Can you talk about how that has changed over 2020 and how you see that going forward?

O’Dea: Public-private partnerships are kind of at a critical execution point for public sector to act more “commercially” and deliver services and capabilities more “commercially.” The PPP is ultimately a win-win. It's a win for the commercial enterprises like Oracle, who want to be able to help our customers do great things and deliver great services and add value to what they're doing. And it's great for the public sector because they get the benefit of that commercial mentality, those more sophisticated tools and technologies that can help them drive the future of public sector. When great minds get together, fantastic things can happen.

Patton: We talk a lot about “preparing for the next crisis,” and we tend to talk about that in a little bit of an abstract way. But the truth is we know what the next crisis is. It's a drastic revenue crisis – budget shortfalls and budget constraints. What does that look like for the next X number of years?

O’Dea: These are public service agencies with critical services they have to deliver, by hook or by crook. Having a constrained budget means you have to be a little bit more nimble, to reuse that word, and think about creative ways to deliver those services cost-effectively but also process-effectively. Public sector always tends to lag a little bit in the adoption of newer technologies or newer capabilities or newer ways of doing business. Budget constraints are going to drive them to look at the newer technologies, the cloud-based technologies, the more operational expense-focused technologies versus capital expenditure technologies.

It's a way for them to not have to do these major, significant outlays like they're used to. It's more of a payment plan style, like leasing a car, this cloud-as-a-service model.

Patton: When you talk about shifting to that subscription model for services, the solutions are constantly being updated. It's such a departure from the way governments have done things, every 10 years building a new system.

O’Dea: Absolutely, and that's the beauty. Again, I kind of correlate it to the leased car. You know, I got the newest model this year; next year, I'm going to trade it in and get next year's newest model and I'm going to get all the good stuff that goes with it. Cloud gives you that same ability to constantly evolve and take advantage of the latest and greatest technologies, whether it's artificial intelligence or machine learning.

Patton: What’s something you think governments need to be thinking about as they're preparing for 2021 and beyond?

O’Dea: Again, think smaller – which I know sounds strange in some ways. But think smaller. Think about ways you can treat the symptoms while you’re also trying to cure the disease.

Try to be a little bit more nimble in how you focus your energies. You’ve got to break things down into something you can consume quickly and easily, and those are quick wins for government, whether it’s states, localities, hospitals, utility districts, education. Think about how you can do that in consumable chunks that you can execute quickly. I think that's going to be key.

Patton: Those are great thoughts. And you said one thing that reminded me of a more specific question I want to touch on before I let you go, which is about educational institutions, both K-12 as well as higher ed. Those are among the most disrupted aspects of government that we've seen this this fall. What do you think about how education is responding to this, and what do some of those longer-term shifts look like?

O’Dea: I think we're seeing several things in education. Both higher ed and K-12 education are faced with the need – just like everybody else in the world – to deliver services remotely.

Here’s a specific example in higher education from Loyola University in Chicago. In higher education students need to see their advisors. But their availability doesn’t always sync up with students’ schedules. And maybe some of their more routine questions can get answered in another way, without having to sit in front of their advisor.

So again: chatbots. If I can get my question answered 24/7 through a chatbot, or at least get me pointed in the right direction, that's a win.

Patton: It’s going to be interesting to see what kinds of innovations like that are made permanent beyond the current situation.

O’Dea: Right. Let's not treat some of these new things we've done as Band-Aids that we ultimately rip off and toss aside. These have some staying power. These new ways of delivering services and thinking about how we interact with the people that we serve should be growing roots right now.