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Is Coronavirus a Catalyst for Telecommuting to City Hall?

Local governments across the country have had to scramble to get work-from-home setups put in place during the COVID-19 crisis, and some say it may lead to permanent changes in staff policies.

Kansas City Missouri
Kansas City, Missouri
Photo by Timothy Klingler/Unsplash
Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis, the local government in Kansas City, Mo., had never done a work-from-home program.

Assistant City Manager Rick Usher recalls a few discussions about the potential of having employees work from home, but the city had never put anything substantial into place. When the virus hit, however, that had to change, and it had to change quickly. Now, Kansas City is on its fifth week of an emergency telecommuting program that includes roughly 600 employees spread across 19 different departments.

And Usher said during a recent phone conversation with Government Technology that the city is learning valuable and potentially lasting lessons from all of this, lessons with the potential to lead to a change institutionwide in work-from-home policy.

Usher said that there really haven’t been many problems. In fact, the city has been conducting a bi-weekly survey of its employees working from home, and he said about 97 percent of the respondents have reported few or no problems. Departments like IT, 311 and city planning are now all working from home, and that city officials are trying to document how that has been accomplished in order to potentially turn them into operating procedures.

“The vast majority of employees are saying we’ve got to keep this program even after this emergency is over,” Usher said.

Work-from-home policies have traditionally been a bit lacking within local government across the country. Even as they’ve become relatively commonplace within the private sector, the public sector has lagged behind, resistant as it inherently is to change and at times needing to go through bureaucratic or political procedures to approve work-from-home policies. 

The lack of flexible attitudes toward remote work has even been cited by some in government work as a deterrent when it comes to attracting employees from the private sector, specifically those who work in tech and innovation, where flexible attitudes toward having employees work from home or off site are basically a norm.

What the COVID-19 crisis has done is force public agencies to embrace work-from-home in the name of safety, and what city halls across the country seem to be finding is that they’ve been able to implement the practice without all that many headaches.

As the crisis continues, a number of entities in the gov tech space have conveened collaborative networks and regular discussions among cities, with those entities ranging from vendors to professional networks to philanthropies.

One such network has been convened by the gov tech company UrbanLeap, which has welcomed representatives from more than 200 cities in 37 states to be part of a discussion group it’s calling UrbanLeague. It is essentially a place for local gov members to discuss how they’re handling problems in the midst of the crisis.

Rich Lechner, the vice president of business development for UrbanLeap, said in broad terms there has been discussion and acceptance around work from home, as well as around providing digital service delivery for constituents stuck at home. Digital service delivery is another area where government has lagged, albeit one where larger cities in particular have been working to make progress.

“A perception of all of this is that this has been coming,” Lechner said, “and this crisis is a catalyst to accelerate a shift.”

Working from home, of course, has also led to some new challenges. The biggest is perhaps ensuring that all public staffers have not only a device for accessing the Internet, but that they also have a reliable and fast Internet connection at home. The need is, essentially, to connect City Hall employees on the other side of the digital divide. Another concern is cybersecurity, which is true also of large public-sector companies that have been forced to hastily institute remote work en masse.

With the digital divide piece, Usher said the need to connect public staffers lines up with ongoing digital equity work being done in Kansas City, which is the case in much of the country, has been made newly vital. Like work-from-home, bridging the digital divide for city staffers is something that has been in the works for some time and is now more important than ever. 

“We’ve digitized so much,” Usher said, “and yet there are those employees who don’t have Internet at home. We’re trying to deal with that.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.