Jun 24 2021

Governments Embraced Digital Services with Gusto Amid the Pandemic

A range of state and local agencies showed that modern digital government services could have a real and positive impact on citizens’ lives.

In Vermont, the coronavirus pandemic accelerated deployment of a range of digital services.

“We’ve stood up over 30 applications through Salesforce over the past 10 months to help respond to the pandemic, things such as registration for testing, registration for vaccines, grants management solutions,” says John Quinn, the state’s CIO and secretary of digital services.

Quinn is not alone. Around the nation, the pandemic sped up digital transformation, prompting state and local governments to shift diverse citizen interactions online.

“When it comes to digital services, there are a couple of reasons for going there,” says Shawn McCarthy, research director for IDC Government Insights. “One is to improve the interaction with the citizen. The other is to get away from the expense of what you’re doing now, whether it’s manual processes, whether it’s an older system that’s costing you too much to maintain.”

The pandemic brought all those needs to the fore. In California, Colorado, Ohio, Vermont and elsewhere, civic leaders leveraged a range of technologies to rise to the challenge. Here is a look at some of the digital services success stories of the past 15 months.

San Francisco Gets Pandemic Information Online

“Over the past year we’ve been at warp speed,” says Carrie Bishop, chief digital services officer for the city and county of San Francisco. “In the early days it was about just putting great content online — making sure that people could really clearly understand what the rules were, what they were allowed to do, what they couldn’t do.”

Such information had to be available and, more important, accessible to all.

“We were putting those into plain language that residents could easily understand, focusing on fifth-grade reading levels,” she says. “We got all of that content translated into our main spoken languages and then added disability access online as well, making sure that everything we did would work for screen readers.”

Carrie Bishop
Over the past year we’ve been at warp speed.”

Carrie Bishop Chief Digital Services Officer, San Francisco

The scale and flexibility of the cloud played a key role in ramping up those digital services.

“We are operating in the cloud as much as possible,” Bishop says. “When you’re making web services, you need that in order to have the speed with which to deploy, the ability to spin something up quickly. That’s been absolutely huge. We’re really not looking to do a whole bunch of infrastructure work at the same time we’re trying to deploy these services.”

RELATED: Explore the technology and approaches needed to quickly enable digital government.

Colorado Uses Infrastructure as Code to Speed Up Service Delivery

In Colorado, officials worked with Apple and Google to implement contact tracing in the early days of the pandemic. With the increased emphasis on digital services, they’re working now to tackle other key issues, including the need to support paid family leave with online interactions.

“That legislation passed in November; the voters said, ‘We want paid family leave in this state.’ Now the question is, what should we do?” says Colorado Digital Service Director Kelly Taylor. He’s also looking to make more child welfare services digitally accessible.

One key technology supporting these efforts is Infrastructure as Code, the practice of writing all software runtime environment and networking settings in such a way that they can be easily stored and versioned on request. It offers administrators a more effective way of managing their development environments.

“You basically design how you want things to deploy and you can extend it from there: If certain conditions happen, then fire up a bunch more virtual machines. It’s how you control things like auto-scaling,” Taylor says. “The value is in the automation. No one has to push a button to make things happen. It’s a pipeline where you code up the behavior of how this environment is going to work.”

Ohio Focuses on Data Availability, Scalability

In Ohio, CIO Katrina Flory has leveraged digital services to support citizen use of natural resources, as well as interactions with the state’s motor vehicle bureau. Data is key to those implementations.

“We’ve got AWS in the background on the data analytics side, and the data lake is running on an Oracle Big Data appliance. For all of the dashboards, we use Tableau for the visualizations,” she says. “And our identity runs on IBM’s SAML platform. You can use for that secure authentication or to establish a citizen identity or a workforce identity.”

Ohio, through its InnovateOhio digital services platform, has created an identity management solution called OHID that enables each resident to have a single account to access all government services. A similar tool, OHID Workforce, provides a single sign-on solution for state employees.

Data must be not only available but usable at scale in order to support citizen interactions, according to Flory. “The pandemic showed us how important it is to have solutions that support scalability,” she says. “We work closely with our data partners, for example, to make sure that we can handle all of that traffic.”

Vermont Streamlines the Citizen Experience

Meanwhile, back in Vermont, Quinn has launched a range of digital services in recent months.

“We have a statewide business portal, a one-stop shop to help businesses register and make their way through the different state agencies — the Department of Labor for unemployment insurance, the Department of Taxes to register your business,” he says.

Katrina Flory
The pandemic showed us how important it is to have solutions that support scalability.”

Katrina Flory CIO, Ohio

“We’ve also built a fish and wildlife mobile application to assist hunters and anglers with not only getting their fishing licenses but also with rule books and understanding the different seasons,” he says. “Another example is a permit navigator for the Department of Environmental Conservation to assist Vermonters and businesses in navigating the permits that they’ll need for different projects.”

To ramp up these services, Vermont has leveraged technology in support of robust security while also building up back-end systems to ensure a positive citizen experience.

“We’ve chosen Okta as our single sign-on solution and a multifactor solution,” Quinn says. “Rather than having 10 different ways to log in to Vermont services going forward, we’ll be using our Okta platform as a single sign-on tool.”

On the back end, the state is making use of Salesforce as a customer relationship management solution. “It helps us provide consistency in how we present to our citizens,” he says. “We can provide a consistent platform where we offer our citizens a standard look and feel. It’s helped transform the way we do IT projects in terms of the speed with which we’re standing up and providing online services to Vermonters and to our own internal staff.”

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Best Practices for Deploying Digital Government Services

State and local government officials describe a number of critical best practices that help to drive systems modernization in support of online services. For example, Quinn says he is always on the lookout for technologies that will work across multiple use cases.

“We look for tools and platforms that integrate well together, that can provide us not only easy usability for our citizens but efficiency and effectiveness for our staff on the business side,” he says. “In support of modernization, we look for usable, scalable solutions.API management will be the next big chapter for government digital services.

In Colorado, Taylor looks for tools that can bring his team together. “With digital services, it’s not like everyone’s sitting there together in the same agency. The teams include multiple people from multiple different agencies and possibly the governor’s office, and they need the ability to all work together,” he says. “We’re one of the Google states with everything on G Suite, which makes it very easy to collaborate.”

Taylor says he likewise looks for connectivity tools that help systems work together seamlessly. This includes internal government systems as well as those of external partners.

“API management will be the next big chapter for government digital services. I’m talking about publicly facing APIs that third-party developers can consume,” he says. “You have to support them with code samples and a developer forum and open API documentation, things like that.”

Kelly Taylor
API management will be the next big chapter for government digital services.”

Kelly Taylor Director, Colorado Digital Service

Meanwhile, Bishop looks to reusable building blocks as a way to maximize return on the technology investment. “Government is run on forms. A lot of people’s main interaction with the government is going to be through forms, and the fillable PDF is not accessible for people with disabilities,” she says. “As we redesign services, we want to think about more intelligent forms as a common building block for these various digital services.”

In the big picture, McCarthy says, cloud will form the backbone of many emerging digital government services. Specifically, he’s looking at the possibility of multicloud deployments as a way to break down silos between interrelated government functions.

“Take motor vehicles for example,” he says. “One motor vehicle office has to integrate with many other systems. Do you have outstanding tickets? Is there a warrant out for you? Do you want to make changes to your voter registration?”

Sometimes those other systems “are located at other cloud providers and are managed by other people in the government,” he says. “What you have is pockets of data being collected by individual applications. You need to break the silos, which is where multicloud integration comes in.”