Mar 22 2021

What State and Local IT Can Learn from 2020’s Digital Transformation Lessons

Innovation happened because those in government thought outside of their traditional boxes in a moment of crisis. Now it’s time to build on those efforts.

For state and local government IT professionals, the year 2020 offered valuable lessons. While it was a year that tested the resolve of many, it also showed that we can accomplish what was once thought impossible.

For evidence, look no further than the rapid pivot that many government agencies had to make, and what they were able to successfully accomplish in a short period of time. Before the coronavirus pandemic, many organizations were understandably intimidated by the scope of what digital transformation implied. COVID-19 forced them to accelerate their efforts to meet current and urgent challenges.

As a result, we saw how five key elements of digital transformation — leadership, product management, development, architecture and operations — can coalesce to enable agencies to quickly achieve outcomes that would have been otherwise not been possible.

Traditionally, these elements would have been treated as separate entities, with different teams working in silos. When the pandemic began, many agencies combined these elements in a holistic manner to meet immediate challenges and compress their digital transformation timeline from years to weeks.

The pressure these agencies faced last spring was unprecedented, but that period supplied lessons agencies can learn from as they move forward with a more strategic, thoughtful and long-term approach to digital transformation. Here are three of the most valuable takeaways.

Technology Isn’t Resilient, People Are

The pandemic showed that real resilience and agility lies not in technology but in people. No one could have planned for the disruption COVID-19 introduced, yet government workers took the necessary steps to overcome that disturbance.

They were open to doing whatever was necessary to solve the problems in front of them, and that openness enabled them to respond quickly.

Flexibility and adaptability will prove critical moving forward. As more states begin to reopen, things will change yet again, and will continue to change as we emerge into a post-pandemic world.

Responding to the challenges ahead will require a unified effort by leadership and IT to deliver services that meet the moment. Technology will support their efforts, but those efforts will be driven by humans.

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There Is No Blunt End or Sharp End, Just a Means to an End

Healthcare providers often refer to something called the “blunt end/sharp end” model. It refers to decisions made by leadership at the upper levels of an organization (the blunt end) and how they impact physicians and nurses at the point of care (the sharp end).

It implies a disconnect between the two groups; for example, board members aren’t necessarily thinking about how their decisions will impact a patient in the operating room.

The model can also be applied to state and local IT, where state and county leaders could be considered the blunt end and developers, engineers and IT managers the sharp end, but successful transformation requires agencies to think differently. Digital disruption impacts everyone. Therefore, everyone must be involved in the innovation process.

Communication is key. Development teams must be able to communicate with product managers, architects and operations managers. Likewise, leadership needs to stay connected to developers and others who are ultimately responsible for delivering services. Everyone needs to work together toward the common transformational goal.

DIVE DEEPER: These are the key state and local government IT trends to watch this year.

Government Can Be Disrupted, Especially at the State and Local Levels

Digital disruption is often associated with the commercial sector — Uber or Airbnb upending the way people travel, for example. However, the pandemic proved that the public sector is just as susceptible to disruption, especially at the state and local levels.

Matt Stratton
Digital disruption impacts everyone. Therefore, everyone must be involved in the innovation process.”

Matt Stratton Transformation Specialist, Red Hat

Yes, every aspect of government was impacted by COVID-19, but the impacts were truly felt by the agencies that needed to get unemployment insurance into the hands of millions of people, or increase food assistance, or meet other critical needs.

The public sector may not need to worry so much about companies causing disruption. Instead, agencies should concern themselves with invisible outside forces that affect them and their citizens, which can be even more disconcerting. Preparing now for those impending disruptions by adopting an agile and open culture can enable agencies to be ready for changes as they occur.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How is the pandemic reshaping priorities for state and local IT agencies?

Digital Transformation Is Possible in Government

While those changes caused a lot of frustration in 2020, state and local governments can look back and find inspiration in what they accomplished. Many states introduced rapid innovations to connect with their citizens during the crisis. States used innovative thinking and technologies to accelerate the processing of unemployment claims and successfully manage major surges in claims processing.

These are just a few examples of major accomplishments that took place across the country. They happened because organizations thought outside of their boxes, and they should be magnified and reflected upon.

Agencies can learn from what their peers did and refer to that knowledge as they move forward.

There’s No Going Back to a Pre-Pandemic Mindset

The pandemic forced many organizations to make a major cultural shift earlier than anyone expected, but for the most part, it has worked. The challenge now is to sustain it for the long term.

One of the best ways to do this is to approach digital transformation in a more consumable manner. True transformation takes years, but it doesn’t have to be daunting.

Agencies should look for quick transformational wins — simple things that can be addressed and lead to immediate improvements. Hitting those milestones one by one can make the entire process seem much less scary.

The good news is that the unknown is now known. Thanks to the lessons of 2020, agencies understand what it takes to achieve true digital transformation. Now, they can apply those lessons for a transformational future.

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