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How Mid-Sized Governments are Changing Their Approach to Modernization with Technology

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COVID-19 forced mid-sized local governments to quickly accelerate digital transformation. Now, they’re poised to use the lessons of the pandemic to transform their technology.

COVID-19 forced mid-sized local governments to quickly accelerate digital transformation. Now, they’re poised to use the lessons of the pandemic to transform their technology.

There’s a lot of ground to cover. Mobile devices, cloud services, advanced automation, and sophisticated sensors give cities, counties, and other agencies tools to transform back-end systems and front-end user experiences. Meanwhile, they’re dealing with tight budgets and uncertainties about the best route to take.

But one thing seems certain: “Everybody should be doing digital transformation,” said Shonte Eldridge, executive government advisor with Amazon Web Services (AWS), in a recent Government Technology webinar. Eldridge joined Phil Bertolini, co-executive director of the Center for Digital Government (CDG), and Jeff Friedman, citizen services leader at AWS, to talk about how mid-sized government agencies are changing their technology.

The trio explored a CDG survey highlighting a rising urgency for digital transformation in mid-sized local governments. They also discussed key challenges, top technology trends, and bridging the digital divides between agencies and their constituents.

“Before the pandemic, governments struggled a bit to go ahead and get to digital services,” Bertolini said in the webinar. “During the pandemic, they had to do a ton of them. They had to throw them against the wall and see what people could use.”

Those experiments revealed the value of digital technologies, according to the CDG survey of 125 leaders in mid-sized governments (populations of 50,000 to one million; 72 percent of respondents work for governments that serve less than 500,000 citizens). CDG noted that 55 percent of survey respondents said digital transformation proved very important during the pandemic. Moreover, 68 percent predicted that over half of their services will be digital and another 6 percent said all services would be digital.

The survey summarized the technologies expected to have the largest role in the post-pandemic world. “The top five technologies—application and desktop streaming, mobile devices, networking, cloud, and data security tools—are all fundamental to robust digital business processes,” the CDG report authors wrote.

Survey respondents noted that digital adoption is growing quickly in agencies of every size. But the need for speed often collides with hard-to-fix obstacles.

“Governments are really facing this two-pronged economic squeeze,” Friedman said. “On one hand, they're allocating funds and resources to businesses and constituents that are facing severe fiscal hardship, a lot of it pandemic-related. And they're also coping with significant tax and fee revenue losses.”

Many agencies are automating everyday tasks to optimize costs.

“I'm seeing a lot of solutions that are low-code, no-code, drop-and-drag technologies,” Friedman said.

Governments can start small, automating a few basic tasks, and then build up a portfolio of automations that let people get more work done in less time—ultimately reducing costs and improving speed and quality of service delivery.

“They're putting a lot of power in the end user and democratizing the use of technology in the enterprise,” Friedman added. “You don't need a technical background to design these workflows that support business process reengineering activity.”

Governments are also boosting revenue collection and optimizing operations like trash pickup and fleet management. Analytics platforms are using data to develop predictive capability, Eldridge added.

Through all this, constituents expect to do business via their phones and laptops. “Over the last 12 months we've all been able to get a mop, a blender, and a workout mat in two days,” Eldridge said. “Yet, sometimes in government, we still have to go downtown to pay our water bill.”

People don’t want to wait 45 minutes on hold, she said. They want the same consumer-level digital services they enjoy anywhere else.

Government employees often resist new digital technologies, Eldridge added. It’s not that they are inherently change-averse—it’s that they don’t understand why the new changes are happening.

“Let everybody know why you're doing the transformation, how it's going to benefit them, and get their input on what they think about it,” Eldridge advised. “That will also help you with your resistance to change.”

How else can mid-sized governments win over reluctant workers?  

“We see a lot of people empowering their workforce,” Eldridge said. Empowerment means giving employees all the digital tools they need to succeed. For example, better tools help call center employees provide quick assistance.

Eldridge added that many jurisdictions are interacting with the public on their preferred technologies. If constituents use Amazon Alexa, governments can accommodate them.

“For example, they may not want to have to go onto a website to find out if their trash is getting picked up because of a holiday,” Eldridge said. If they want to ask Alexa about trash pickup, they should be able to.

Advanced sensors, robotics, and analytics platforms are helping mid-sized governments accomplish more with limited staffs and budgets, Friedman said.

“What if there was a smart camera on the dashboard of a city fleet vehicle?” he asked. An algorithm could scan dash camera imagery for damage to street signs and city property—and automatically dispatch repair crews.

Eldridge and Friedman agreed that security is on the minds of today’s government leaders. “We've seen how much ransomware is occurring on a daily basis,” Eldridge said. “Just last week, we had two major school systems on the East Coast hit by ransomware.”

The two experts said AWS data centers take data protection seriously. “For us, security is job one,” Friedman said. “A lot of times there's enormous server sprawl in local government and you'll find servers in closets or in basements. That's not something that happens in the physicality of the cloud-enabled world.”

While Friedman and Eldridge made a strong case for digital transformation, they emphasized the risk of widening the digital divide. Not all constituents have a broadband connection, many speak languages other than English and Spanish, and some don’t feel comfortable with computers and automated interfaces.

Eldridge’s advice: “Look at your digital transformation and figure out how you can make sure it's equitable. Not just moving things to the cloud or moving things online because it's easy but making sure that everybody—no matter if they're in a city or a rural area, or if they have broadband or not—still has a great experience based on new and modern technology.”

For strategies to break down digital innovation barriers and tackle mission-critical operations with the cloud, visit the AWS Public Sector Digital Transformation hub or the AWS Local.gov microsite.