Sep 08 2020

Governments Embrace Digital Services Amid the Pandemic

Recent research and initiatives at the state level indicate the coronavirus is pushing government agencies to use digital services with gusto.

Gone for the foreseeable future are the days of the crowded city council or state government meeting. Gone, too, are large numbers of citizens congregating in government offices for services such as permits and license renewals. The coronavirus pandemic has transformed how government operates and how citizens interact with it.

In many cases, out of necessity, government agencies have been embracing digital services with enthusiasm. While some jurisdictions were thinking about these kinds of initiatives before the pandemic struck, recently published research and examples from states indicate the pandemic has accelerated those efforts.

According to a recent survey by Granicus, which modernizes government web services and strategies, 82 percent of government officials believe their organizations need to become more technologically advanced.

The survey, which covered 1,490 government officials and citizens across the U.S., found that 61 percent of government officials believe the pandemic has “expedited digital transformation at their organization,” and 52 percent of citizens reported noticing that their “governments are beginning to offer more online options” for services, according to Granicus.

According to the survey, 54 percent of citizens now expect government services to be offered online, and 30 percent of citizens “expect those processes to become simpler,” according to Smart Cities Dive.

Government IT leaders seem to agree and think tightening state budgets due to the economic fallout of the pandemic could make it more likely that states adopt digital services. “We are in a digital era, which means [we need] continuous investment into digital services,” California CIO Amy Tong tells Government Technology.

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States Turn to Digital Services to Aid Citizens

As the pandemic unfolded, legacy systems such as unemployment websites faced unprecedented pressure. States also addressed the need to get information out to residents during a rapidly evolving public health crisis.

Digital services teams and offices in various states moved to address those issues. For example, in late March New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the formation of the COVID-19 Technology SWAT team, which recruited highly trained and civic-minded IT professionals from the private sector to help the state meet a wave of IT demands during the pandemic. The effort was led by the state’s Office of Information Technology Services and supported by the Department of Financial Services.

The teams “completed 40 projects over the past three months, from informational websites to screening applications to training workshops,” Government Technology reports. The publication notes:

The result facilitated 49 million interactions between state government and citizens, and it saved taxpayers as much as $14 million through 25,000 hours of volunteer support from employees in the private sector, according to ITS.

Some of the projects the SWAT teams worked on included an updated and redesigned unemployment insurance application that was cloud-based and mobile-friendly.

“This included: developing a mobile-responsive upfront interface to collect user info and upload it to the … website during downtimes to reduce timeouts and call center volumes; overhauling the design and steps associated with the unemployment insurance process to eliminate bugs and wrong doors; allowing residents to save progress and complete an application later; and integrating the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance process into a single application,” according to a report from New York state on the SWAT teams’ progress.

Another project was the creation of the New York Forward website, which, the New York state report notes, is “a one-stop shop to guide businesses on their reopening plan and provide New Yorkers with the data and resources to stay safe and track regional reopening announcements.”

Meanwhile, in neighboring New Jersey, the state’s Office of Innovation modernized the state’s communications and delivered public health information thanks to “partnerships with third-party vendors and organizations like Yext, a cloud-based search provider that built the state’s COVID-19 information hub and the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit think tank that helped the state build a question-and-answer tool for frequently asked pandemic inquiries,” StateScoop reports.

The office also worked with Rutgers University and U.S. Digital Response to create a “website that helped small business owners find information about government assistance and an internal rapid-assessment tool that gave state officials insights into their supply chain for personal protective equipment,” according to StateScoop.

And in Oklahoma, the state rapidly revamped its unemployment system and set up a digital portal for residents to use to apply for assistance. The portal allows residents to apply for and track their unemployment benefits online, and “the state has been able to process 30,000 claims per week and deliver more than $2 billion in unemployment checks — all without adding additional customer service representatives,” Howard Langsam, executive vice president at Granicus, writes in Government Technology.

States seem more open to working with private sector IT pros to help them meet the need for digital services, should that need arise. “There was such a need to have a surge of expertise, of resources, so we were glad to have those companies available to do that, and willing to do that,” New York ITS spokesperson Scott Reif tells Government Technology. “We’ve done a lot of after-the-fact thinking … and certainly we would like to go back to these companies if there is a second wave, if we were to need additional assistance. I think everybody hopes not to have to do that.”

READ MORE: Find out why better digital services make life easier for citizens.

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