Since March, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on local governments, forcing furloughs, layoffs and projected revenue shortfalls in the coming fiscal year. But amid the difficulties, there are bright spots—including the widespread adoption of new technology, a trend that government officials say is likely to continue.
“We’re all working from home now, so you have to kind of blow up the process and start all over,” said Luke Stowe, interim director of administrative services and chief information officer for the city of Evanston, Illinois. “And that has been a positive thing.”
More than 95% of state and local government leaders said their agencies used software to maintain service levels as employees began working from home, according to the results of the “Local Government’s Next Normal” survey, a joint project between the Atlas, Engaging Local Government Leaders and SeeClickFix. The survey, conducted online earlier this summer, queried 386 state and local officials on the impacts of Covid-19 on public service delivery.
Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said their organization adopted new technology to maintain community engagement and communications as the public health crisis has unfolded.
A large number of respondents also said that new technology focused on enabling civil servants to do their jobs from home, including virtual desktop software and private networks that allow employees to log on securely to government sites, said Kirsten Wyatt, executive director and founder of ELGL.
“That’s been huge, because it was a way that people could be working from home and still have access to the files they needed without having to go in,” she said. “Then, obviously, there’s the ability to meet and communicate with their coworkers as well as have meetings, whether they’re using Teams or Zoom or any of those type of tools. Those have been the ones that were first out of the box that we’re hearing our members were using.”
The switch to remote operations also forced governments to embrace virtual services, especially those that generate revenue, Wyatt said.
“If governments didn’t have any type of online permitting or licensing capabilities, that became even more pressing, because often those are fee generators,” she said. “As local governments are looking forward at all of these potential budget shortfalls, many are recognizing that permitting or licensing software needs to be a priority.”
Revenue shortfalls are a concern nationwide and have already led to layoffs and furloughs in cities and counties across the country. Local government workforces had decreased by 879,000 jobs in July compared to last year, with nearly half of those losses in education-related positions, according to data from the U.S. Labor Department. And a recent review of municipal fiscal conditions by the National League of Cities found that cities are expecting a 13% drop in 2021 general fund revenues compared to this year.
In the Atlas, ELGL and SeeClickFix survey, 94% of respondents said they anticipated decreased tax revenue, which will force cuts in a variety of programs and functions. Those projections come even as 76% of respondents expect their cities to adopt more software in the near future to further streamline public services, which will likely leave leaders with difficult budgetary decisions in the upcoming cycle, Wyatt said.
“That’s the balance,” she said. “In theory, there are so many different products out there that you can basically install with the click of a mouse, so it’s easier than it would have been 20 years ago. Governments that have been kind of walking that walk and moving forward are going to look at some of these different models and prioritize doing things remotely. But if a local government is fearful, or doesn’t want to change the way they’ve always done things, cost is going to be an easy excuse.”
Other excuses may be harder to rely on, Wyatt said. Because governments have quickly, and successfully, adopted new technologies, it will be difficult for less progressively-minded staff members to drag their feet on embracing innovations in the future.
“It is pretty phenomenal that governments have adapted more in the last six months than they have in the past 10 years,” she said. “It comes down to government in general, and to our ability to reflect on this time and learn from it, and I think people have become even more open with asking questions and getting feedback and ideas from other organizations. It’s also this idea that sometimes you just have to pilot something quickly. Government, in the past, may have wanted to study and restudy and analyze and re-analyze.”