Getting to the Next Normal in Government Technology

This past week, one headline at proclaimed: A great technology wave is cresting over America because of the pandemic — and it’s largely a good thing. Here’s an opening excerpt:

“If history can teach us anything, it’s that pandemics have a long-lasting and severe effect on the economy. But there’s another lesson: Human ingenuity and adaptation march on.

The deadly coronavirus may have shut down a large number of American businesses and forced many people to work from home, but it’s also the driving force behind the acceleration of technological adoption.

New technologies are being rapidly adopted. Even after there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus, those trends will be here to stay, remodeling society for years to come. …”

But backing-up a bit, the coming “new normal” was obvious during the early days of the pandemic. MIT’s Technology Review wrote on March 17, 2020: “We’re not going back to normal. …” wrote about how education will change as a result of the pandemic.

And the Houston Chronicle described how technology will change us after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Quote: “Now, by avoiding a virus for which humanity has no natural immunity, these changes are accelerating. The internet has become a critical factor in coping with the coronavirus pandemic. And when this is over — whenever that might be — we will come out of this changed, more reliant that ever on being connected. …”

The Government Technology Road Ahead

So what does this “next normal,” include for state and local government professionals, and how can leaders navigate the road ahead?

I want to dedicate this blog to highlighting a new resource that was just developed by the Center for Digital Government, under the joint leadership of Teri Takai and Phil Bertolini. (The Center for Digital Government is owned by e.Republic, also the parent company of Government Technology.)

The resource is titled “Navigating the Next Normal: A resource guide for state and local IT leaders during the COVID-19 recovery and beyond” and is available for download in PDF format here.

So what’s in this guide and why was it created?

“The Center for Digital Government is developing this resource guide in collaboration with state and local IT leaders who participate in our Digital States Performance Institute and Digital Communities initiatives. Our intent is to provide insights and practical advice to IT leaders throughout the nation as they navigate the complex terrain of recovery.

We believe the process of restarting next-normal operations can logically be divided into three phases, falling roughly into 30-, 60- and 90-day increments.”

The guide provides survey results on a wide variety of questions, and a small sampling of some of the key questions addressed include:

First 30 Days

  • How will essential employees return into some sense of the next normalcy?
  • How will non-essential employees return to the work structure?
  • Will the physical and operational work environment be different?
  • Will remote work continue? Will it be for selected groups? For selected individuals?

First 60 Days

  • What policies either need to be changed or amended after COVID-19?
  • Will governments be able to manage the people issues post COVID-19?
  • Which priorities or plans will be carried forward, delayed or potentially cancelled?
  • What will leadership require to ensure resiliency post-pandemic?
  • Are current contracts still viable or do they need to be restructured?
  • What impact will the CARES Act have on future priorities?

In addition, in the areas of infrastructure and cybersecurity, key questions include:

  • What legacy infrastructure can be modernized in the short term?
  • Does the infrastructure have the capacity to manage mass remote work?
  • What skill sets are available in house and/or what partners are needed to ensure success?
  • Do existing cybersecurity priorities match the needs of the next normal?
  • Will government have the funds to modernize or even replace aging technologies?

I really like this quote from Steve Emanuel, former CIO of Newark, N.J.: “For the most part, most organizations have embraced the remote workforce. We’re allowing people (with specific guidance) to utilize their own devices. From a security perspective, I’m really concerned about data, documents and information that may no longer be within our grasp (following backup and recovery processes) and our control. We’ll be talking with a lot of the directors to ensure that we have a list of those folks who will continue to work at home. We need to determine where the data is that now may be uncontrolled and put controls around it.”

First 90 Days

What will this new set of changes hold for governments moving forward?

  • What current plans can be salvaged, delayed or cancelled to meet the needs of the next normal?
  • Do governments have buy-in from their business units to make changes to current technology requests?
  • How far out can governments plan and still have enough room to make changes if needed?
  • What radical changes in the role of technology in government operations, that were introduced as a result of the crisis, should be retained, expanded and included in future?

These are all tough questions that will require action.

  • All current technology master plan projects should be halted and reviewed for viability. If technology leaders wait too long, the ability to minimize the waste of resources will be limited. Projects that should continue should be restarted immediately.
  • Operational staff should be included in the creation of a new technology master plan. The new plan should begin to take shape in the first 90 days.
  • All financial impacts of stopping, delaying and continuing technology projects should be analyzed.

Again, these questions offer just a small sample of the topics covered and actions included in the guide, and I urge government technology leaders (whether in the public or private sector) to download the guide and use the material. These are the right questions.

Worldwide Tech Changes in Every Industry

As this separate report from another industry points out, technology changes are occurring globally and within every industry sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government technology leaders are not unique in the challenges faced moving forward to the “next normal.”

The digital transformation trends have accelerated dramatically, and three of those common topics include:

“Transition to the Cloud and Remote Work. Project delivery and project design in the cloud has been commonplace for some time within the industry. However, COVID-19 has caused an acceleration of moving to the cloud for office productivity (e.g., Office 365 software), backoffice enterprise resource planning (ERP) and overall company-wide collaboration. With business shutdowns throughout the country, companies have had to adapt by quickly transitioning to a remote workforce, causing stresses on internal infrastructure (e.g., bandwidth of service level agreements with cloud vendors, remote access applications for software licensing, collaboration tools such as Zoom and Teams, etc.). As a result, CRE companies are laser-focused on a complete transition to the cloud and responsible deployment of their remote workforce. Challenges that were present, but slow to be addressed, are now accelerated by the pandemic and require immediate attention. Doing so can help to limit departmental silos, knowledge gaps within teams, outdated workflows and any limits of craft and skilled labor for projects.

Workforce Initiatives. CRE companies can benefit from workforce investment in the areas of field reporting, safety checklists and inspections, human resources (HR) and engagement and training. Focusing on such workforce initiatives can deliver immediate impact by appropriately leveraging technology. When employees can complete different tasks required on the job in a safe, technologically advanced and secure way, work can be completed faster while also enabling the tracking of data for later analysis and use. Training effective end-users is also a valuable return on investment (ROI) on security measures. For example, training end-users on social engineering (phishing, vishing, whaling, etc.) is critical along with an increase in protective controls of email vendors as a result of COVID-19.

Digitization of Key Workflows. Automation of inefficient workflows can greatly improve the digital transformation of CRE companies, including procurement, invoice routing and approvals, time and material (T&M) tickets and work directives, and daily reporting and job photos. It is important to help employees understand company policies regarding actions they are allowed (and not allowed) to perform on their work devices. If employees are using their own device, consider investment in reputable antivirus and install updates as well as password manager implementation and multi-factor authentication.”

Final Thoughts

My advice: Don’t fight the current (massive and scary) wave of change, but ride the wave of technology solutions and innovation available to solve real business problems in government and society moving forward. Over the past four+ months, I have heard it hundreds of times from different sources and in different ways: We are not going back to way things were in Feb 2020 (or 2019 or earlier).

The time is now for security and technology leaders in the public and private sectors to realign tactical projects for the remainder of 2020 and strategic projects for 2021 and beyond.

This new guide published by the Center for Digital Government is a must-read – and more importantly a powerful, helpful guide for state and local governments to use now.  

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