mobile phone and city (ponsulak/


Why COVID-19 just accelerated the online imperative of local government

Unexpected. Unpredictable. Unprecedented.

These are only some of the words being used to describe the cultural, societal and industrial shifts felt across the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a matter of months, academic institutions from preschools to universities migrated to online learning, mega-corporations shut down offices and ceased work-related travel and local governments were forced to close their doors, leaving citizens searching for alternate ways to obtain critical civic services -- like applying for unemployment. While no one saw the pandemic coming, it should be no surprise that COVD-19 is ushering in a permanent reliance upon socially distanced virtual engagement.

COVID-19 is not the first time that governments have had to shutter. In the 16th and 17th centuries, government offices closed in London as the city battled the bubonic plague, and as recently as 2009, Mexico City closed government offices as part of a larger effort to limit the spread of a newly identified infection. This latest shutdown, however, shows that paper-based, manual, in-person local government workflows have reached their end of life cycles.

Local governments can no longer give operational preference or solidarity to in-person administrative business operations. Even though some municipal offices have reopened with appropriate safety measures in place, many are still allowing staff members to continue to telework. What’s more, many citizens -- particularly those who are immunocompromised -- are not comfortable queuing up in person to pay bills, apply for jobs or file for unemployment benefits. These realities mean that staff members are still decentralized, and citizens still need remote capabilities for servicing their civic needs.

Even if scientists identify a COVID-19 vaccine in the next 18 months or determine that we have achieved herd immunity, there is no going back to how businesses, schools, health care offices and local governments operated before COVID-19. Citizens who are now learning to pay bills online, stream public meetings from home and access public documents from their mobile device will not be willing to return to a life of rush-hour commutes, long lines, printed forms and postage stamps.

Reflecting on recent technology history, we can see that once an innovation becomes mainstream, the old way of doing business or accessing information is out. Consider these pivotal changes over just the past two decades:

  • Email reduced raw mail volume by 36% between 2007 and 2008 alone as consumes began the switch to paper-free billing and online personal correspondence, shopping and news consumption.
  • Smartwatches are destroying the well-established Swiss watch industry.
  • Ride-sharing services are rapidly stealing market share from the taxi industry, jumping from 8% to 70.5% of the business traveler ground transportation market from 2014 to 2018.
  • As of 2019, more Americans now pay for streaming services than cable television.

Consider what these migrations should tell us about our future. Once self-driving cars are reliable, affordable and widely used to safely commute and travel, for example, what parents will want their 16-year-old learning to drive a machine that was once associated with 3,287 deaths per day? With technology advancements come not only convenience but safety -- precisely what we are all craving in the wake of a global pandemic.

For local governments, this progress means migrating citizen services online now is not a simply a nice-to-have. It is imperative.

The online imperative for local government

Across the globe, the COVID-19 crisis identified the expedited need for digital services. In the first wave of response, governments took immediate steps to develop new applications and virtual solutions to urgent challenges, such as the overwhelming of state unemployment benefit offices. In the second wave, the focus shifted to resuming general operations, with in-person gatherings migrating to virtual meetings. These shifts are not temporary Band-Aids. They are permanent bridges transporting administrative staff and citizens from the old way of doing business into a future that will be marked by virtual expectations and voluntary social distancing. Local governments that have not yet begun the comprehensive enablement of digital citizen self-service and administrative efficiency need to do so now or risk coming under fire for violating local regulations at best and losing citizen trust at worst.

Those municipalities and governments that have fully adopted the theoretical doctrine of online transformation are taking monumental steps toward its achievement. They are holding hackathons to rapidly create solutions to issues surrounding siloed data, software integration and custom system development needs.

They are taking the initial, mandatory steps to migrate to 5G to enable broadband ubiquity to sustain communities of homeschooled children, to conduct conferences using virtual meeting software and serve patients seeking health care with telemedicine platforms.

They are turning to low-code, rapid application development tools to foster collaboration between departments and build custom digital twins of manual workflows without the cost or time needed to hire custom programmers.

Most importantly, their leaders are taking on the crucial role of change agent, helping staff members and citizens who have interacted in-person and across a counter from one another for years, predicated by generations before them, to find comfort and opportunity in virtual capabilities and cross the digital divide -- together.

The new normal -- and the future -- are now

Local government online service delivery is now imperative. The COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated it, but it has been in motion, lying just beneath the surface of government-citizen expectations for the past two decades. What should be stressed is that regardless of whether a citizen is obtaining a pet license, a zoning application or an agenda packet in person or online, what will never change is the essential role that local governments play in our society and citizens’ dependence upon their dedication and accessibility.

About the Author

Jonathan Wiersma is the vice president of strategy at CivicPlus.


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