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Government’s Innovation Surge Shouldn’t End with the Pandemic

Service improvements that used to take years are now being accomplished in days. The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that permanent transformation is possible.

St. Petersburg City Council members conduct their Thursday meeting via Zoom. (Josh Solomon/Tampa Bay Times)
As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded across the country, closing many government offices in the name of social distancing, cities and counties have been forced to find new ways to continue to serve their citizens. What they've been able to accomplish — and how quickly they've been able to accomplish it — has been nothing less than spectacular.

In less than three days, for example, Pittsburgh created an internal voice-over-IP IT service desk to support the city's employees while at the same time moving all of the service-desk employees to their own homes. It took about four days for Miami to test and then conduct a city commission meeting using video-conferencing software.

For years, Baltimore employees pressed the city to allow electronic signatures on contracts. Today, electronic signatures are a reality, a change that will help reduce contracting times by days if not weeks. Port St. Lucie, Fla., has long provided new employees with a full-day, in-person orientation and onboarding class. Since April 6, however, a virtual, online orientation program has allowed new hires to hit the ground running — or in this case, hit the ground running by working at home.

Success stories like these will be talked about for years. At some point, however, as the coronavirus pandemic subsides, we'll begin hearing calls to "get back to normal," with government returning to its traditional ways of doing business. Government innovators must respond with a forceful no. We should take this opportunity to permanently transform our services, transactions and regulatory systems.

Let's be candid: Before the pandemic hit, "normal" meant that 85 percent of services were done in person and by hand using legacy technology. It meant a customer spending hours at the DMV to get a driver's license. Or perhaps a requirement for 17 approval signatures for an internal hiring process. Or printing out multiple copies of an RFP and making sure each was signed by hand and notarized. Only 50 percent of the residents coming into a permitting office to get a business license were leaving with one.

It took a pandemic for some courts to start doing conference calls instead of convening unsafely in stuffy courtrooms. It took a pandemic to get city council meetings online and interactive. As we move forward post-COVID-19, we must continue to reach for spectacular results. We've proved what is possible, and there are powerful reasons to keep today's innovation surge going.

To slash costs, for one thing. With revenues plunging, the coming months — and perhaps years — will be some of the toughest that government budgets and programs will ever have seen. Denver recently announced a $180 million budget shortfall; not even in the Great Recession did revenue losses go that deep. The city of Boulder, Colo., already announced that it would lay off more than 700 employees. Nearly every city, county and state will be rolling out hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs.

But when we find ourselves on the other side of this global tragedy, the dust will clear. Our focus will move from public health and the safety of our residents to economic revitalization and recovery. Applying innovation principles to how governments work going forward will be key to driving the recovery.

To do this, we will need to completely rethink how we design and deliver our services. Even before COVID-19, the city of Las Vegas worked to speed up the bail-bond process by creating electronic documents to share among the finance office, the sheriff, the courts and bond providers. And the city of Peoria, Ill., found a way to ensure pest abatements without sending an inspector and exterminator.

With that same ingenuity, we must challenge ourselves to continue to transform government's services. Here are three practical ways to quickly improve service delivery:

  • Transfer funds electronically. Hundreds of governments still are not using technology such as Automated Clearing House. They could implement automated payments overnight, reducing both virus-spreading touches and the costs of handling cash and checks.
  • Discover and address the real pain in your services. When an application for food assistance must be reworked multiple times, you lose the capacity to serve another person. Update your processes to make sure you do not require multiple pointless reviews for the same application.
  • Identify more services that could be moved online. Work with your technology teams to update your websites and your call-center information frequently with the goal of eliminating the need for your residents to make a trip to your office.
As Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti put in his recent State of the City address, "We must ask of our city and our nation at this time, is 'normal' really what we want to come back to?" We should never go back to normal.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Innovation practice lead for the Change and Innovation Agency
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