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6 Best Practices for Managing Disruption

New report details how special government districts responded to the COVID crisis and identifies key takeaways for future resiliency.

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Last year, special government districts delivered uninterrupted essential services -- power, water, recreation, transportation, sanitation, emergency response and more -- throughout one of the most disruptive events in recent history. The Special Districts Program, a joint initiative of AT&T and Government Technology, supported these organizations through virtual events, advisory board meetings and other activities during 2020.

A newly released annual report based on these conversations details how special districts responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and identifies lessons learned that can help organizations navigate future uncertainty. The new report distills insights and experiences shared by leaders from 20 special districts across the nation, including gas and electric utilities, water and sewer systems, airport and seaport operators, transportation authorities, and organizations that run libraries, parks and low-income housing programs.

Here are some takeaways from 2020 that can help organizations prepare for the next disruptive event:

HAVE A PLAN AND PRACTICE IT. At the Orange County Transportation Authority in southern California, an emergency operations plan developed and practiced well before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived proved invaluable when offices were shut down.

“We had spent a significant amount of time over the past five or six years really strengthening our continuity of operations and crisis planning,” says Darrell Johnson, CEO for the authority. “We really thought at some point we’d have to use it for a flood, a fire or an earthquake. We didn’t think we’d use the plan for a public health crisis.”

Johnson says drills conducted around operating without accessing the authority’s headquarters -- as well as a work-from-home pilot launched last year -- positioned the organization to transition 500 staff members to remote work.

“A big part of that shift was technology, of course,” says Johnson, noting that about 100 staff members were issued tablet computers to support the move. “But the bigger part of that was the drills and exercises that forced our people to do their jobs and interactions from a remote location.”

LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITY DURING CRISIS. The Contra Costa Transportation Authority in California’s San Francisco Bay Area took advantage of lighter traffic on a critical stretch of freeway to shave time and cost from an important construction project. The authority recently opened a new 25-mile express lane on Interstate 680, a busy north/south stretch of highway east of San Francisco, a full year earlier than planned.

“When a project is done early, you save taxpayers a lot of money,” says Randell Iwasaki, Executive Director of the authority. “This means our contractor doesn’t need to be out there another year, and the taxpayers get the benefit of the lane a year earlier, which means your rate of return is that much greater. We were able to leverage a bad situation to our advantage.”

REPURPOSE EXISTING SYSTEMS AND ASSETS. The Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission in South Carolina implemented a virtual hiring process for summer job applicants without purchasing new hardware or software. The commission, which relies heavily on temporary employees to staff up for the summer season, leveraged its existing financial system to let job seekers apply and upload documents online.

“We had to operate without face-to-face contact and we had to use existing systems because we had no budget,” says Gina Ellis-Strother, the commission’s Chief Administrative Officer.

BEWARE OF NEW SECURITY RISKS. In response to COVID, special districts rapidly shifted employees to remote work, expanded digital services, adopted new cloud services and more. These moves enabled districts to maintain vital services -- but they also created new security vulnerabilities.

A ransomware attack struck the Lancaster Area Sewer Authority (LASA) in Pennsylvania just as the authority was shutting down its public office and sending administrative staff to work from home. Malware infiltrated certain aspects of the authority’s network, locking up systems at perhaps the worst possible time.

“It was hurt on top of hurt,” says Mike Kyle, Executive Director for the authority. Fortunately, LASA had cyber insurance and was able to work with a team offered through the insurance provider to recover from the attack. It took about a month to return to normal operations.

The experience turned Kyle into an evangelist for cybersecurity awareness. “I’m an advocate now and a preacher for comprehensive cybersecurity plans, because it’s not a question of if you’ll be attacked, but when,” he says.

MODERNIZE FOR RESILIENCY. Districts that adopted cloud, mobility, digital collaboration platforms and other modern technologies before the pandemic hit had an easier time pivoting to remote work and digital citizen services.

For example, the Lake Apopka Gas District in Florida had already migrated systems to the cloud to improve resilience during hurricane season.

“I’m proud to say during the last hurricane we had we didn’t have a minute of downtime for our back office,” says Scott Minter, Director of Information Systems for the utility district. Those upgrades made implementing remote work for the bulk of the district’s staff in March a relatively smooth transition, he says.

DOCUMENT YOUR RESPONSE. Panelists at Special Districts Program virtual summits throughout the year pointed out the importance of reflecting on lessons learned during the pandemic. They recommended documenting actions taken during the COVID response -- and noting what worked and what didn’t -- to inform decision-making during future disruption.

“Make sure you’re documenting the challenges you encountered and how you responded,” says Bruce Moeller, a former fire chief and city manager who now consults with local governments on public safety issues. “Use this experience as a planning resource for the future.”

You’ll find more insights on how the pandemic is impacting the future of internal operations, service delivery and leadership strategies in the Special Districts Program Annual Publication for 2020. Download your free copy today.