Special district leaders offer insights on COVID-19’s impact at the Eastern Region Virtual Summit.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing special government districts to confront new management challenges, as well as higher workloads and expenses. But it’s also sparking innovation that will outlast the current public health emergency.
Those are a few takeaways from the Special District Eastern Region Virtual Summit, which brought together special district leaders from across the eastern U.S. for a conversation about navigating the changes and continuing uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and the resulting economic impact. More than 90 special district leaders joined the live virtual summit on Oct. 7, which featured speakers from housing authorities, parks commissions, water and power utilities, transit authorities and fire districts.
Panelists shared lessons learned from the COVID-19 response and offered insights into how special districts are adapting management techniques, technology strategies and leadership approaches to meet the needs of a post-COVID environment.
The Greater Naples Fire Rescue District in Florida has seen a consistent 15 percent increase in emergency call volume since the pandemic hit in March. Responding to each call also is more expensive due to personal protective equipment (PPE) and additional staffing needed to keep employees safe.
Chief Kingman Schuldt says his district rearranged spending priorities to pay for enhanced safety measures and new technology gear to connect fire district employees working from home.
“It has been a challenge for us,” says Schuldt. “Employee safety is always a priority for us, but now we’re spending so much time and money making sure we maintain healthy people and buildings. The balance is keeping our normal response, while getting PPE and changing polices to keep people safe.”
Those issues are magnified by the duration of the pandemic, he adds.
“We plan for defined events like a hurricane or fire – and we’re very good at dealing with those,” says Schuldt. “But we’re about eight months into this and the increased volume of calls is having a big impact. It’s been a lot different for us.”
Technology teams are feeling the strain too. John Daane, IT director for the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Florida, discovered newly remote staff had different – and often more fundamental – support needs than they did in the office.
“There were all these low-level support needs we didn’t anticipate,” says Daane. “They needed help connecting to their network and configuring printers – the stuff we always took care of in the office.”
In response, Daane’s support team learned to ask users basic questions, such as “where are you working?” and “what type of computer are you using?” They also created a series of how-to documents to help users work through simple problems.
Both Schuldt and Daane said collaboration is key to success in the current environment.
For Schuldt, that meant forging closer partnerships with law enforcement, transit agencies and other organizations in the region to respond to COVID-related issues. For Daane, it meant building stronger ties between IT staff and users.
“We had to rethink how we provide support,” Daane says. “It took patience and understanding from both sides.”
New technologies implemented to meet immediate remote work or virtual service requirements ultimately will support lasting changes in the way special districts run internal operations and serve customers.
For example, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) – which provides water and wastewater services to 1.8 million residents of Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince Georges counties – now performs almost half of its plumbing and gas-fitting inspections virtually.
“Using collaboration technologies, inspectors from our regulatory services division can work from their homes,” says Yvonne Carney, director of strategic performance at the utility. “They instruct the plumber where to point the camera so they can visibly confirm that things are done correctly. They also came up with a way to create a virtual sticker to indicate the inspection took place.”
Carney says the utility expects to continue conducting virtual inspections when the public health crisis is over.
“It’s just another tool we didn’t have before,” she says. “It’ll be great for bad weather days or bad traffic days that would impede us. We might not use it for 46 percent of all inspections like we do now, but it will continue to be used.”
Similarly, the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission in South Carolina implemented a virtual hiring process for summer job applicants. 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.
AT&T Principal Architect Michael Harrod says special districts across the nation have shown remarkable creativity as they pivot to meet new demands.
“I’m just amazed at their ingenuity,” he says. “What’s really interesting is the solutions they have created often will now be mainstream solutions. They’ll be built upon and expanded even further.”
Multiple panelists at the Special Districts Virtual Summit said managers must be sensitive to new pressures facing remote workers – everything from relentless workloads to new homeschooling and childcare responsibilities. Brian Benn, CIO for the Atlanta Housing Authority, recommends managers be results-oriented and flexible about employee schedules. “We’re simply asking staff to be available, do your job and overcommunicate,” he says.
Panelists agreed that leading remote or hybrid workforces will demand constant communication from district leadership, as well as the development of new ways to measure employee performance that doesn’t rely on in-person attendance.
Government-to-citizen communication is evolving too. Bruce Moeller, a former fire chief and city manager who now consults with local governments on public safety issues, says crisis communications must happen at a new pace.
Governments must communicate with citizens on COVID and other disruptive events at the speed of social media, he says. “There’s no longer a 24-hour news cycle; today it’s second-by-second.”
Finally, Moeller and others urged district leaders not to waste the current crisis. Panelists 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 Moeller. “Use this experience as a planning resource for the future.”
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