By Christian Foster, Chief Growth Officer
There is no question that the pandemic has created one of the most challenging periods ever for local, state, and provincial governments. And it is without question that more challenges lie ahead.
Government revenues are already declining leading to budget challenges in many communities. In the U.S., according to Moody’s, state and local governments have already reduced combined payrolls by 1.5 million people, with more cuts to come. It is also estimated the combined budget shortfalls could be as high as $500 billion between now and 2022.
Considering the budget cuts and impact to staff, governments making technology investments now may seem counterintuitive. But the need for government to invest to make operations more efficient and citizen-centric has never been greater. Governments cannot afford not to make needed investments.
Pandemic response has underscored what citizens expect and government employees need
The pandemic accelerated some requirements of governments that have been building for many years. Citizens expect to be able to interact with governments online. That is because nearly all of us have become accustomed to intuitive, easy, and online interactions with the private sector – from retail to food delivery to financial transactions. The millennial generation — now of an age to build and buy homes, start businesses, and more — has grown up with technology at their fingertips and expects the same from government when they choose a community to live or work.
Meanwhile, government employees are as challenged by current decisions regarding remote work and school openings as those in the private sector. Some will need the same flexibility companies are adding to allow for children’s remote learning and work/life balance needs in the coming months. While governments are likely to enter recovery with fewer employees, at least a portion of those will not want to, or will not be able to, return to working in a traditional office environment. That means governments need technology that allows employees to access needed data and systems outside the office – especially from mobile tools like smartphones and tablets.
This is an excellent time for transformation
With reduced budgets and fewer employees, governments will have to find efficiencies to meet current requirements and to encourage future growth needed for recovery. The good news – it is an excellent time for governments to rethink how they apply and use technology and undergo needed transformations.
First, pandemic response has required all of us to think about new ways of doing things. Governments that did not have remote work policies or services and information available online for citizens were especially challenged when stay-at-home requirements first rolled out. In response, many things that may not have been attempted before – like paperless government operations – became requirements for continued operations. Governments that use this period of intense change to rethink all processes will certainly find needed efficiencies and likely key innovations. For example, before the pandemic Snohomish County in Washington State leveraged our Amanda platform to receive citizen questions about the building permit process online and then manage responses as a workflow. That enables them to quickly route the question to the appropriate county employee resulting in a more efficient and higher quality response to the citizen. It has also helped them build a knowledge database over time.
Second, technology has become increasingly affordable. Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud technology put new software adoption and data migration strategies in the reach of all sizes of government. The resulting efficiencies that governments unlock after leveraging technology can pay for the investment in a short period of time. One of our customers, Volusia County in Florida, estimated the cost savings resulting from efficiencies covered their initial investment in our platform in 18-24 months.
Third, in the past governments were often limited by multiple smokestack technology investments that did not interoperate. Today, the availability of technology that is both flexible enough to adjust for department or local differences and extendable enough to address the wide range of regulatory services governments often manage is far greater. Using a system across multiple departments improves efficiency and citizen service. It also enables governments to develop a 360-degree view of their citizens’ needs and activity allowing better planning. This is an excellent period for governments to transition away from inefficient, legacy technology – and do so affordably.
Where to start and what to include
It’s important to know where to start when your agency is ready to plan for investing in technology and transformation. Making sure information and services are accessible to citizens online is a key undertaking. Equally important is laying out a plan to digitize all data and manage data in a common dataset across departments. If your government is managing processes with legacy or custom-built software (or even with paper and spreadsheets) – a flexible, powerful, and scalable enterprise software platform is the best place to start investing.
It is important to remember that citizens increasingly expect their interactions with governments to be as easy and intuitive as those they have with public companies. That means taking a citizen-centric approach when designing processes and services, and then making sure that the technology in which you invest can enable a great experience. For example, citizens want to enter information in online forms, not download and upload forms they need to manually fill out. Core information from those citizens (e.g. address data) should only need to be collected once if the citizen is interacting with different departments.
Governments should also invest in technology that can anticipate citizen needs and any potential slowdowns. That means replicating what, in years past, one might expect with an in-person interaction. For example, automatically noting when someone has missed a needed information field when submitting a form. And, providing the ability to track the progress of a service need (e.g. inspections during home renovations) online, or even, proactively keep citizens up to date with email or text alerts.
Those are starting blocks for what is possible when technology is fully leveraged. Before the pandemic, some governments were experimenting with “smart routing” of building inspectors – making the process faster and easier for both the inspector and the property owner. Imagine the potential of remote inspections (conducted through real-time or uploaded video sent to an inspector), to both protecting health safety now, and massively improving efficiency in the long run.
The payoffs make the investment worth it
Any government will make a careful cost-benefit analysis before investing. As mentioned, the savings from resulting efficiencies can often pay for the investment in new technology in a relatively short period of time.
Also consider that many private sector companies are continuing remote or “work from anywhere” policies for another six to 12 months, or even making those permanent. This makes it possible for employees of those companies to move away from where the company is based – and we can expect at least some part of the population to take advantage of this. The communities that are considered “great places to live” will benefit from the growth that comes when those people are choosing their next home. Efforts to make government operations modern, available online and citizen centric contribute greatly to quality of life measurements on which the great places lists are often based – and hence can encourage community and economic growth.
A third beneficial payoff is that an important key to growth lies in any government’s ability to access, analyze, and action data. Governments collect enormous amounts of data, and when it is all digital it can be analyzed to uncover trends and future needs, making it easier and more effective for governments to plan. A starting point to take advantage of data is a digitization strategy. And consider that the use of advanced technology like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning – increasingly available at affordable costs — can add even more to analytical abilities.
Governments will continue to be challenged for many months as we recover from the pandemic. Those looking ahead are taking advantage of this period of transition to rethink processes and tools to become more citizen-centric and efficient. The smart path to doing that lies in smart investments in technology today. If your government is considering how to transition, we would love to help.