3 Lessons Learned About the Future of Government Flexibility


Major shifts are happening in front of our eyes, and the COVID-19 pandemic upended government processes and the everyday lives of constituents too. Though most cities and states are well on their way to reopening, some shifts may be around for the foreseeable future. Governments must strategize and plan while incorporating lessons learned from the pandemic to better serve constituents.

At the very least, local governments must become more flexible with digital engagement strategies. In the recent webinar “Lessons in Flexibility: What COVID-19 Teaches Cities About Working Through Disruption,” government technology experts Patrick Moore, a senior fellow at the Center for Digital Government, and Stephen Tyler, chief technology officer, weighed in on the effects we are already seeing.

A central focus of the webinar was on resolving the challenges that emerged during the pandemic, and how governments can address these challenges to meet immediate needs. Organizations also must consider how the lessons learned will apply to an array of public sector topics like adaptability, resident engagement, and service delivery.

COVID-19 proves that the future of government requires flexibility in people, processes, policies, and systems. Here are three of the big lessons for moving forward with more purposeful and future-proof local government operations:

Lesson 1: Remote work illuminates the digital necessity

One of the first big shifts in the public sector caused by the pandemic was the physical closure of city and town halls. Government work didn’t stop because of the closures, instead, organizations had to collaborate with IT services and ensure staff had laptops and remote system access so that productivity could be accomplished with remote work. For many local governments, integrating digital technologies has been positive for efficiency, operations, and workplace morale.

This “unprecedented work-from-home experiment” has resulted in permanent telework policies for many local governments. Tyler cited examples of new policies and plans for long-term remote work for municipalities like Idaho, Texas, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and more.

Over half of the webinar attendees (54.6 percent) shared that their agency either already has or will implement new permanent telework policies. Though long-term plans were still up in the air for about a third of respondents, only 13 percent of respondents were confident that their agencies would not go remote.

Remote government operations involve more than hardware and connectivity — it’s about service delivery too. Now that governments understand the advantages of operating city functions digitally and remotely, residents must also have easy access to services as well.

Remote work office

When asked about digital access to key city services during the webinar like 311 service requests, board and commission applications, dog and business licensing, business permits, and special events permits, 45 percent of attendees responded their organizations offered none of these services digitally.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed cracks in access to local government services with lagging digital services, and stakeholders must invest in robust technologies so residents can access critical services and prevent obstacles or shortcomings should a crisis occur again in the future.

The big takeaway is that government interfaces with resident engagement will continue to change, refine, and enhance. Providing digital access to services on the front end can improve accessibility, reduce service request call volumes by 15-20 percent, and reduce costs. According to Tyler, the “new normal” will accelerate the need for remote service because of a greater shift to telework and increasing cost pressures on local governments.

The cloud is the engine by which governments can deliver digital services most effectively, Tyler says, “the way you do digital matters, and the cloud is the way to do it right.” The platform offers an architecture that’s scalable and flexible, allowing the growth of remote delivery and expansion of city services, in crisis situations and beyond.

Lesson 2: Effective communication + self-service = Reduced burden on 311

Crises of all kinds, from COVID-19 to natural disasters, will require a different demand for access to services. For example, it’s reasonable to consider that in-person services like COVID-19 testing sites and 311 service centers experienced extreme overwhelm, due to the demand during the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.

Municipal organizations (both in the U.S. and globally) were phased with responding to a rapid and sudden increase in demand for government services. Local governments needed to  “flatten the curve” for service demands, due to many employees working on a limited remote schedule. Cities turned to technology and strategy to provide information and services to their residents with scalable digital solutions.

Much like many other municipalities during the pandemic, Baltimore County, MD, faced high call volumes during the pandemic and needed an approach to flatten the curve for its community. The county merged its health department and 311 capabilities and strategized inquiries for efficiency. More basic inquiries were sent to 311 staff for quick response, while more high-priority questions were routed quickly to medical professionals. This strategy decreased the burden on health departments and helped form a future-proof process, providing answers to common questions and taking inbound requests through digital formats.

311 call center

An important takeaway for municipalities after the pandemic was to use digital channels to present critical information. Some pro tips for municipal communication and digital strategies may include:

  • Providing access to public health information and resources (local regulations, testing sites, closures, and more).
  • Utilizing mobile apps and integrations is another best practice channel to offer information  17% of households are mobile Internet only, and for lower-income adults, 24%.
  • Employing outbound communication that’s timely and relevant to audiences
  • Using digital insights that allow for geofencing and geotargeting, get information to the right audience
  • Maintaining an adaptable mindset

Lesson 3: Adaptable processes and tools drive positive change

Lesson two focused on the increase in demand for services, but another challenge local governments faced during COVID-19 was the necessity of the adaptability supporting processes and tools.  For example, COVID-19 service request types were a new beast for many municipalities, and government agencies had to find systems and resources to support the crisis. Though adapting isn’t always easy, it requires a layer of organizational culture that supports flexibility.


Some questions to consider about your organization’s flexibility:

  • Do your tools allow you to add and run new services easily?
  • Are different departments within your city all trained on these same adaptable tools, so pivots can happen quickly?
  • Are solutions used available from the cloud, accessible from anywhere for remote or hybrid workers?

“When the chips are down,” says Tyler, “we all need to strive to be flexible and adaptable.” When local governments have the right culture and tools in place, they can shift to meet the demands of residents readily.

The future of government

Flexibility and adaptability in government have always been necessary when challenges arise. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons governments have learned can help better serve residents for years to come. Technology enables governments to form resiliency during tough situations and do better, more efficiently.

It’s not too late to adapt. COVID-19 was a catalyst in revealing some gaps in government services or processes during times of crisis. The lessons learned will carry on to make organizations more nimble, resilient, and adaptable.


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