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Pandemic Drives Long-Term Changes for Special Districts

Leaders point to rapid evolution of service delivery, talent management and technology planning.

by AT&T / October 1, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic is driving long-term changes around service delivery, workforce strategy and technology planning in special government districts.

Those are some key takeaways from the Special District Program’s Central Region Virtual Summit, which brought together nearly 100 special district leaders from across the central United States on Sept. 17. Speakers from airports, seaports, parks, libraries, transportation commissions and water districts described how their organizations are adapting to the reality of a post-COVID world.

New service delivery methods deployed in response to COVID are permanent. The pandemic forced districts to roll out new digital services and other alternative service delivery methods to cope with office closures and social distancing mandates. And even though some of these new offerings were considered temporary when launched, their popularity with citizens makes them hard to discontinue.

That was the case at the Deerfield Park District in Illinois, where Executive Director Jeff Nehila launched online tennis reservations to keep players from congregating at recreation facilities while waiting for an open court. Later, when the state relaxed rules around citizens gathering in groups, Nehila moved to shut down the online system.

“I tried to dump the tennis reservation system and people went nuts,” he says. “So that’s something we’ll continue to do. I never anticipated it to happen, but people loved it and they grew to expect it.”

The pandemic also sparked service delivery innovation at the Wilmington (Ill.) Public Library District. The district now uses smart lockers — like those used by Amazon for package delivery — to safely distribute library materials to patrons. The lockers are housed in a climate controlled, security monitored structure on the main library grounds. The new facility is open 24 hours a day and eventually will include printing and scanning technology, which library patrons lost access to when the library shut down physical locations in March.

For library Director Maria Meachum, the new facility is a way to continue serving citizens as the pandemic stretches into next year.

“I always believed COVID would be an issue well into 2021, so I began planning for the winter,” says Meachum.

Compared to curbside service, she says, the facility will be safer for staff and more convenient for patrons during snowy or icy weather. And, although it was driven by the pandemic, Meacham says she always viewed the facility as a long-term enhancement to library services.

“I wanted this to be something that could go on, not just for COVID, but for any other situation we come up against in the future,” she says. “And I wanted it to be something that was useful even if nothing came up in the future. It will still be there 24/7 for third-shift workers and others who want services from us after normal business hours.”

Remote work will have long-term impacts on public sector workforce strategy. District leaders say the pandemic-driven shift toward remote work could have several lasting benefits, including helping districts compete for qualified employees and opening new sources of talent.

Like many special districts, the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission did not let employees work from home prior to COVID. Now, commission leaders are starting to view remote work as an important recruiting tool, says Chief Technology Officer Brian Kelley.

“We realized enabling some degree of work-from-home where it makes sense may let us attract people we wouldn’t normally be able to because of distance,” he says. “Another thing is we realized that individuals with disabilities could perform functions from home that they can’t in the office — so we may be able to tap into a whole new workforce.”

Kelley says technological improvements make a long-term shift toward remote work practical.

“After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, there was a lot of talk about remote work, but we didn’t see it take off like we thought,” he says. “Now we have much better collaboration platforms, and it’s working out quite well. There always will be a need for some face-to-face interaction. But we’ll see greater flexibility on remote work and it will improve quality of life for our teams.”

Districts also are adjusting management techniques for remote workers. For example, the San Antonio Water System in Texas is developing new employee performance metrics that focus on work outcomes instead of in-person attendance, says Sree Pulapaka, CIO for the water system.

In addition, the district intends to deploy new technologies aimed at supporting long-term remote workers, including expanding virtual meeting capabilities and collaboration microsites built around specific projects.

“Come 2021, we anticipate a substantial amount of our workforce to be remote,” Pulapaka says. “We want to roll out technology that makes their lives more comfortable.”

But greater adoption of remote work also comes with concerns. Special district leaders worry about losing connection with virtual workforces as the practice continues long term.

“Maintaining culture is going to be really difficult,” says Kelley. “That might be one reason why we can’t leverage remote work as much as we think. We’ve had some people start during COVID, and they haven’t been able to establish the personal relationships.”

On the other hand, Charles Thompson, CIO for Port Houston, says districts can overcome the challenge if they had built trust with employees prior to the pandemic.

“The true measure of an organization is being able to maintain its culture in spite of disruption,” he says. “Can you extend the culture of trust no matter where that distributed workforce might be? I believe we’ve done that.”

The pandemic is driving new focus on touchless technology interfaces and other innovations. COVID-driven concerns are prompting special districts to rethink how employees, customers and stakeholders interact with their technology systems.

At the Houston Airport System, for example, these concerns are accelerating the adoption of biometric identity systems. The district fast-tracked the deployment of facial recognition technology for passengers entering and exiting international terminals at Houston’s George W. Bush Intercontinental Airport, says CIO Tanya Acevedo, adding the technology also could be used to securely and safely identify employees, flight crews and other stakeholders. “It’s really about providing a touchless experience for passengers and employees,” she says. “We’re looking at technology that eliminates the need to touch a screen or keypad for identity. We’re trying to use your facial image for that.”

Finally, district leaders say the pandemic proved the value of modern technology for business continuity and resilience. Districts that had already invested in mobile devices, robust connectivity and cloud-based solutions fared better once the virus arrived. Now districts need to implement lessons learned from the experience.

“Our districts depend on us for technology vision,” says Kelley. “We need to take a critical look at what worked well and what didn’t — and what that means for the future.”

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