Local government organizations are no strangers to experiencing sudden changes in routine. Whether it’s natural disasters, such as wildfires, tornadoes or hurricanes, or new budgetary or regulatory changes, many municipalities have plans in place for the possibility of disruption to “business as usual.” No organization, however, could have predicted the biggest disruptive force impacting local governments in recent history, COVID-19.

During the ongoing pandemic, local governments were required to make drastic changes to keep up with a constantly evolving “new normal.” For example, municipalities had to very quickly learn and adapt to the way they delivered essential and non-essential services to citizens and switch to a near-entire remote workforce within a short period of time. From these adjustments municipalities have learned these three valuable lessons over the past six months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Recognize the power of a remote workforce

The ways in which municipalities work and communicate were transformed in a matter of weeks. Many municipalities had to switch almost overnight to a remote-work model as government offices closed. Yet, far from lasting only a few weeks, these changes have had lasting impact for local governments across the country. For example, multiple municipalities in Washington state plan on keeping nearly 12,000 employees working remotely into next year. Travis County, Texas, plans on keeping up to 75 percent of its government staff working remotely on a permanent basis.

As it becomes clear that remote work is likely here for the foreseeable future, municipalities should take time to assess how remote work can be reimagined to best continue meeting business needs. Some have already begun redesigning what constitutes a digital workspace and how best to maintain worker productivity now that personnel are no longer in a physical workspace. Examples include scheduling formal and informal touch bases on a regular basis with personnel and making sure each employee has the tools needed to do their jobs efficiently, whether it’s IT assets like laptops and headsets or productivity solutions that facilitate online collaboration.

2. Virtually connect with citizens via digital services

The need for digital services took front stage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing requirements have prompted many municipalities to reduce or even eliminate in-person services and replace them with online services. By offering digital services to their constituents, some local and state governments were better prepared for rapid surges in need stemming from COVID-19. When national unemployment skyrocketed to historic levels in the weeks and months following the initial lockdowns, reaching 14.7 percent in April 2020, many municipalities quickly pivoted to meet these unprecedented levels of need. In Oklahoma, for example, the unemployment claims process was revamped into a fully digitized one within 24 hours. This allowed the state to process up to 30,000 unemployment claims a week and send out over $2 billion worth of unemployment checks, without increasing the number of personnel or needing in-person interactions.

This highlights how critical it is for local governments to connect virtually with citizens in meeting new communication needs. Municipalities have learned they need effective and accurate messaging on websites and digital apps to clearly communicate important public health updates and information on critical services. By establishing this digital presence, municipalities can inform citizens of relevant, timely updates as situations evolve.

3. Encourage agility and efficiency

Flexibility is one of the core attributes municipalities have learned to embrace since the emergence of COVID-19. With a flexible mindset, municipalities are better equipped to recognize opportunities that have the potential to help improve their overall agility and efficiency. One such opportunity is found in the cloud. Cloud-hosted systems can help increase collaboration and innovation by enabling seamless continuity of business operations even when personnel are working remotely. Adopting a cloud-first outlook is a key driver to boosting efficiency, supporting a remote workforce and serving as the pathway to digital transformation. In fact, one survey found that almost 60 percent of government IT leaders plan to increase cloud adoption either slightly or significantly as a result of COVID-19. 

While COVID-19 has made a permanent mark on how municipalities engage with citizens, in many ways it has merely accelerated the implementation of many long-standing technology goals. The use of cloud-hosted systems has proved mission critical for a remote workforce, as it allows municipalities to continue to provide essential services to citizens. For the public, digital services can help save time, reduce in-person interactions during COVID-19 and increase engagement with their local government. Municipalities now have an opportunity to leverage these tools to not only continue providing quality services to citizens, but also to face whatever the next normal becomes once COVID-19 subsides.