COVID-19 and pivoting into a new year: It may be 2021, but did we really leave 2020?
Usually, the start of a new year brings great hope and promise – and memories of the past fade rather quickly. Not this time if you are in city and county tech. In fact, to many, 2021 is more like an extension of 2020. Regardless of the mindset of time, “the great pivot” not only remains in place – it’s fast becoming institutionalized. What was temporary is starting to become permanent.
Until March of last year, tech leaders and managers were consumed by computer virus apprehension. They would soon learn they were facing a new threat, a new type of virus, and one that doesn’t affect machines – but people. Suddenly, local government tech managers had to pivot without a playbook and amazingly moved most government services to a remote and virtual environment in both days and weeks. Few, if any, in this generation had contemplated what happens when a government is forced to shut down their buildings. What happens when key employees are either sick or too worried to show up for work? What happens if a government is forced to close? How does government continue to operate in such emergencies? How does the public interact with a “closed” government? IT professionals carried the day and perhaps for the first time were publicly recognized and acknowledged for the many hours of work and sacrifice. In a sense, governments were closed but operated as being open!
Towards the end of last year, it was becoming clearer that many of the temporary work-arounds were here to stay. Today, the reality is that most local governments are forecasting major revenue shortfalls – unless the federal government comes to the rescue. Much uncertainty remains and is already impacting budgets and staff. Memories of the Great Recession of 2008/2009 have come back to haunt – and sadly, some jurisdictions have only recently fully recovered. While it’s too early to know just how bad things can or will get, one thing is certain: the significance of information technology is here to stay. In many ways it can be said that information technology has become the glue that holds it all together.
As we continue to navigate 2021, many issues will require continued tech leadership and support to carry everyone through. Here are just six areas that will shape the future of cities and counties across the nation as they relate to information technology.
- Cybersecurity focus intensifies as the shift to a remote workforce becomes normalized. The growth of ransomware attacks continues to place more pressure for IT to be more proactive and greater investment in IT resources will be required. Localities will have no choice but to place cyber funding as a much higher priority.
- Managed services will continue to grow as local governments struggle to keep up with cybersecurity, application and storage needs. Many local governments will find that they can better achieve their operational objectives by turning to managed service providers who can leverage their infrastructure amongst many accounts thus offering the potential for better and more secure services, and expectantly in a cost-effective manner. This will be evident through third-party vendors as well as cloud service providers.
- The CIO stature, either in title or function (not everyone has the title of CIO), has risen and is now recognized for the leadership role played throughout the pandemic. As the overall role becomes rightfully elevated – they will continue to have a major impact in the way services are offered to its internal customers and citizens for years to come. This recognition also lifts the careers of tech professionals in all areas.
- Citizen centric focus grows in emphasis and importance. Citizens have become more insistent that they be treated as stakeholders as opposed to mass consumers of services. Public managers have observed that greater citizen focus leads to improved communications, citizen satisfaction, and builds a greater sense of community pride along with meaningful community involvement.
- Remote work options become permanent as public managers recognize the importance and efficiency of having at least some workers maintain their option of working from home. Underlying this shift is the recognition that productivity can be measured, and accountability maintained just as well as onsite staff.
- The future of the office is forever changed. Based on the experience of the “Great Pivot of 2020” many are re-thinking the need to expand, build or maintain costly office space that may no longer be viable. There will of course always be a need for physical space to meet, but individual offices may shift to shared temporary workstations used by workers when they are in the office. As local governments seek ways to cut operational costs, office space may top the list.
Information technology has demonstrated its critical support and strategic planning role. 2021 began as if 2020 had never ended. With the pressure to do more with less, technology has become an inescapable ally in helping to reduce costs and working towards making government work smarter. With the promise of increased vaccinations and the hope of federal rescue dollars for local governments, there are finally meaningful signs of hope and promise. This new year might turn out to be a great year – but one must never forget all the lessons learned. City and county tech professionals will always have at least one virus to worry about.
Dr. Alan Shark is Executive Director of CompTIA’s Public Technology Institute.