Government Affairs leaders from Accela and Microsoft recently led a session in a Route Fifty Town Hall to share ways in which the once-in-a-career American Rescue Plan Act funds can best help local and state governments harness the transformative power of technology to deliver long-lasting improvements to government services.
While many yearn to “return to normal”, Accela’s Darryl Booth and Microsoft’s Michael Mattmiller suggested that is precisely what we shouldn’t do. Why go back to pre-pandemic approaches, they challenged, when the pandemic response expedited many modernization projects to the forefront of better government?
“What we’ve observed, and really must celebrate, are the local civic heroes — that is to say, those who urgently did some amazing stuff during the pandemic,” said Booth, Managing Director of Accela Center of Expertise & Government Affairs.
“A return to ‘normal,’ taken literally, might dispose prematurely of those good efforts,” he said. Given the big digital strides government took last year, “those are things that we should keep up, and not automatically return to the way things were prior.”
Tech’s role in government transformation
In the first two weeks of the pandemic, “we saw more digital transformation than we had seen in the prior two years,” said Mattmiller, Director of Government
Affairs at Microsoft. “What that means is that governments took incredible leaps forward in how they use technology to enable their operations.”
State and local agencies shifted thousands of employees to work-from-home and spun up a range of digital services. They invested in new platforms and new ways of operating, “to make sure that the business of government could continue,” he said. “We certainly hope that those practices do not return to a normal, and that we keep that digital infrastructure in place and continue to accelerate digital transformation.”
Maximizing investment for the future
The American Rescue Plan Act funding creates a window of opportunity to double down upon that good work and do so with an eye toward enduring change. It is widely understood that funding at the state and local levels can not only improve government service but can also drive economic recovery.
Booth cited Eugene Sperling, Advisor to President Biden, who noted that the key challenge in the last recession was contraction at the state and local level. “The whole character of the recovery would have looked differently had there just been more assistance to state and local governments,” Booth said.
This time the financial support is there for all levels of government, with multiple waves of government funding in the offing.
“We see legislatures across the 50 states playing a more active role in being engaged on how those funds will be spent and being very mindful that this is a truly once-in-a-generation resource that they’re being given,” Mattmiller said. “They’re exploring what is the greatest way that we can benefit our public.”
Technology has proven to be the catalyst to transformational benefit to the public. “What we see is that governments are really realizing again how critical tech was to enabling response during the pandemic,” he said. Agencies are moving to redress many of the shortcomings that existed in their legacy infrastructure pre-pandemic. And now, with more time to be thoughtful about how to leverage rescue funds, many are seeking out technology projects that are likely to have the greatest long-term value.
“We don’t want to be encouraging governments to stand up systems and programs that can’t be sustained in the next two to three years,” Mattmiller said. In addition to COVID-related spending on things like health system upgrades, agencies can also be looking to cost take-out strategies, investing in the technologies “that allow government to be more resilient and to be able to respond to the next crisis.”
Cloud migrations will rank high on that list. “Starting to retire those legacy environments – the data centers, legacy systems that didn’t hold up – would be a great way to think about the technology aspect of this funding,” Mattmiller said.
In addition, agencies can leverage digital tools to streamline processes and ultimately trim budgets with things like virtual inspections and video documentation. “Recovering our staff travel time – the time that we spend moving from job site to job site, or facility to facility – is enormous,” Booth said.
Agencies may also want to invest to shore up their cyber defenses, given the new threat landscape. “Making sure that we are putting in place the right tools to protect our governments, to avoid the very costly types of breaches and ransomware attacks that some governments have been affected by this year, is another great way to ultimately take out costs long-term,” he said.
To ensure the best decisions are made and priorities set before moving forward, Booth said, state and local governments should pause and take stock. “Take a breath,” he said. “Just enjoy what you’ve accomplished in the previous year, what you’ve lived through.”
Once the dust settles, agencies can then start to look for those IT enhancements that deliver “clearly tangible improvements to the service offering, reliability, security of our local government colleagues,” he said. Online payments, web portals, digital documents – all these can help to move the needle on citizen service.
Finally, government can further leverage the power of public-private partnerships for additional expertise and resources to create that better normal in service delivery.
“Looking at the pandemic, government and our first responders played an incredible role in keeping our communities alive and beating this terrible COVID-19, but they couldn’t do it alone. They did it with our providers,” Mattmiller said.
To make these partnerships work in the future, “we have to enable data sharing and collaboration – both to finish out this pandemic, and to be ready for whatever comes at us next,” he said.