As COVID-19 continues to spread, the ways in which governments engage with constituents evolve on a daily basis. To help contain the virus and keep people safe, the pandemic drove an urgent need for consistent and trustworthy information from government leaders. Thirsty for critical information, citizens flocked to government websites and opted into government-issued news and information. While recent surveys show these efforts built trust with citizens, governments now face unprecedented demand and simultaneously must battle the spread of misinformation.
At the same time, government teams are working frantically to provide service delivery for everything from driver’s license renewals, business permit applications, and unemployment benefit distribution. Social distance requirements have accelerated pressure on governments to move these necessary services from in-person to online, but with no additional budget. Unfortunately, for communities that have not been able to pivot quickly, residents have experienced delays in their services and little transparency — adding to mounting frustration levels.
For better or for worse, the pandemic has brought digital transformation to the doorstep of public agencies at all levels. The good news is that rapid deployment of technology has lasting benefits beyond the current crisis including increased citizen engagement, enhanced quality of service delivery, and more transparency throughout each citizen-government interaction.
And fortunately for state and local governments, these shifts toward rapid technology deployment come with federal support. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, is providing a minimum of $1.25 billion to every state and can be applied to technologies that support and protect the public in response to COVID-19. Ensuring rapid information sharing, resource availability, and distribution of aid squarely falls in the purview of CARES funding. The only challenge is that governments must use these funds before Dec. 30, 2020.
Many states have already begun distributing these dollars to cities and counties based on population, which means that local governments must act quickly to secure the best path for use of these funds. While several agencies have already begun their move to digital using CARES funding, it’s not too late for others.
In addition to aid and relief for the most urgent response efforts, public agencies have the opportunity to fund critical technology needs, including:
- Urgent and Ongoing Resident Communications: In a recent survey of over 1,000 people across the U.S., respondents identified government communications as equally trustworthy as information from family and friends during COVID-19. Not only do governments have a special obligation to communicate the facts in a timely and consistent way, but engagement with these communications has skyrocketed — further supporting the case that now is the time for robust, consistent communications efforts from local governments. As the pandemic continues to evolve, governments must adopt tools that support rapid response, delivering messages directly to residents via email, text, and social channels — enabling local leaders to reach as many of their constituents as possible, and quickly.
- Modern Web Properties for All Audiences: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the average local government website saw an increase in its Web traffic by 25 percent. Still, many government websites are not mobile-friendly or fully accessible. Now is the time for citizen-centric design — one that uses data, analytics, and real-time user experiences to drive the information shared. And while hundreds of local governments created central COVID-19 resource hubs on their websites that are updated regularly, this is just the first step. Public information officers must consider the needs of all citizens, support ADA requirements, ensure mobile accessibility, and create a destination for citizens to accomplish critical requests for service.
- Digital Service Delivery for All: Now that in-person transactions are no longer an option, many leaders switched their service delivery methods to lengthy and manual processes including snail mail of forms and documents. While the federal government gave some relief, delaying the deadline for Real ID as one example, many social services such as unemployment benefit distribution or license renewals are delivered by states and local communities. States like Oklahoma proved it is possible to pivot quickly — bringing their application processes for unemployment benefits online in just 48 hours.
- Public Meetings in a Remote Environment: The new normal of the legislative process is that it must allow for secure, reliable access to virtual public meetings for both local leaders and residents. Gone are the days of closed-door council sessions; the public is eager for transparency and demands greater involvement. Despite relaxed Sunshine laws, many community clerks have ensured public access and comments to critical decisions with technology. Now, as governments livestream their meetings and make their agenda and supporting materials more readily available digitally, cities are seeing an increase in civic engagement, in some cases doubling or tripling public attendance.
Using CARES funding to digitize the most critical services not only works during COVID-19 response but benefits citizens and agencies alike. The COVID-19 pandemic was unexpected and has led to many changes in how governments and citizens connect. With the CARES Act, local governments have greater flexibility to fund a wide variety of programs that address the fallout of the pandemic — and also invest in their long-term digital transformation.
For more information on how to use CARES Act funding to support digital transformation, please see Granicus’s FAQs on need-to-know information for governments.
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