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For Local Leaders, the Meaning of Digital Government Has Changed—and That’s a Good Thing

In a recent roundtable discussion, CIOs and thought leaders discussed how local governments responded to COVID and how they will continue to make digital advancements in spite of it.

As we approach the end of 2020, leaders in local governments around the country are reflecting on the unprecedented events of the past year: specifically, the hyper-speed with which CIOs and CTOs had to implement digital transformation efforts as a necessary result of the pandemic. As they take stock of what they’ve implemented, many government leaders are focusing their 2021 priorities on improving the lives of citizens and streamlining government operations—all while facing budget cuts (according reports, the projected budgetary shortfall of city and county governments due to COVID-19 through FY2020-2022 is about $500 billion) .

Granicus convened a group of these CIOs and thought leaders to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on their communities and what kind of digital transformation the pandemic has accelerated or halted. We were joined by Kimberly W. Lagrue, CIO of New Orleans; Mike Almvig, Director of Information Services in Washington state’s Skagit County; and Aarti Tandon, CEO of Smart Cities Expo Atlanta. The discussion was moderated by Kathy Pham, a computer scientist and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. The conversation was spirited and spanned a number of topics, from building citizen trust to maximizing existing tech platforms.

There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Digital Transformation

When the COVID crisis hit, Washington State was the first to declare a state of emergency. Almvig and his team in Skagit leapt into action, getting government employees set up remotely and remaining focused on digitizing as many services and events as possible: from permits to court sessions.

“I feel like I’ve been doing my five-year digital transformation roadmap in about six months with the COVID crisis,” he said.

Likewise, LaGrue—whose team had been battling a pervasive cyber attack earlier in the year—had to quickly adapt to the changing needs of New Orleans citizens. As the pandemic wore on and budget cuts loomed, it became clear that an approach to digital transformation over the long run would need to be rethought and broken down into bite-sized pieces.

“We have to be a little more compartmental about our digital transformation,” said LaGrue. “We’re going to start breaking these large projects apart and become very focused on the individual places where transformation makes sense.”

Citizens Want Transparency—And Digital Tools Provide It

Building trust and communicating with citizens took on outsized importance in the early days of the pandemic, as leaders focused on getting control of the growing public health crisis in their communities. While some emergency measures have come and gone, implementing digital tools for improved citizen engagement remains a lasting goal. And it’s not just a one-way priority.

“I think there are a lot more community forums, a lot more people wanting to know what’s happening in their own neighborhoods,” said Tandon.

And for the residents of New Orleans, digital communication efforts became not only a way to provide information, but also a way to understand who citizens wanted to receive communication from. By tracking citizen sentiment to communications, LaGrue and her team found that there was a strong desire to hear directly from government leaders—even more than from doctors.

“We used tools to gather information about how our residents felt about who was delivering information and then we had to start to deliver that transparency in a way that is acceptable to them,” said LaGrue. “For some, it was a website where they could fact check and for others, it was the words coming out of the mouth of the city leadership.”

Shrinking Budgets and Staff Mean Smarter Use of Technology

The promise of a vaccine has buoyed hope for the year ahead. But 2021 will not be without challenges. Budget shortfalls pose a barrier to executing many of the digital projects CIOs have on their roadmap. In fact, 88% of counties report budget impacts from COVID-19. But our panelists were determined to move forward in creative—and sensible—ways.

“The great thing about technology is that it’s scalable. A single platform can be used in so many ways, and we’re going to have to lean on that,” said LaGrue. “That’s what it’s going to take for our government to survive in 2021.”

Better leveraging of existing technology is one strategy—and one that will help streamline efforts as local governments face smaller staffs as a result of the pandemic. According to a report from the National League of Cities, nearly one million employees could face furloughs, paycuts or lay offs due to the budgetary challenges cities face.

Collaboration is another important consideration in the new year: “One of the things that we’re seeing in Washington, especially around cyber security is none of us have money to do it.” said Almvig. “I’m seeing some collaboration starting to happen around local government with the state and even federal.”

Digital-First Government is Here to Stay

Our panelists all agreed that COVID has accelerated much-needed digitization. For some, it’s a natural progression. For all, the transformation won’t stop once the pandemic winds down. In fact, most of the systems established during COVID will inform a change in the way government systems operate well into the future.

“I’m not building my systems because of COVID. I’m building my systems because we have a generation coming up that doesn’t want to come into a government office and do business,” explained Almvig.

And ultimately, for communities to be better prepared for future crises, it’s important to stay focused on continued transformation.

“The more digitization we have, the more resilient communities we’re going to build,” said Tandon.

To watch our digital government roundtable discussion in full, join us on December 8th at 10 am PT / 1 pm ET. Register here.