Presented by Grant Thornton
Even as society has reeled from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private organizations have taken some giant leaps forward in information technology. Here, Grant Thornton’s Graeme Finley discusses key lessons learned — and how agencies can prepare for the next crisis.
Even as society has reeled from the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private organizations have taken some giant leaps forward in information technology.
Grant Thornton’s Graeme Finley, who serves state and local governments as a principal in the public sector advisory practice, has made some observations about key lessons agencies learned during the pandemic, strategies they can use to build on their successes and how they can prepare for the next crisis.
Bringing over 25 years’ experience to his position, Finley has a passion for making a real impact on the lives of citizens by empowering his clients to achieve their missions. His thoughts include observations from Grant Thornton’s most recent annual State Chief Information Officer Survey, which he helped author in collaboration with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).
“Organizations were already beginning to go fully digital,” Finley says. “The pandemic forced them to make a year’s worth of change in a matter of a couple of months. There was really no choice but to move fast and figure out a way to make it work.”
Not only did agencies have to find ways to take their workforces almost entirely remote, they also had to deploy more citizen services — from driver’s licenses to unemployment applications and more — online. And, as speed became imperative, they had to rethink their process for contracts and partnerships with the private sector. The result? Communication improved and agencies found ways to streamline traditional procurement processes.
“I think there was just a sense of, ‘we’re all in it together,’” Finley explains. “People were willing to do whatever was necessary – working weekends, evenings, whatever it took, just to get the job done.”
The Big Takeaways
As the pandemic brought digital culture to new heights, drew employees away from the office and sent most transactions online, skeptics began to realize how much change could be accomplished in a short time. The experience also reinforced the elevation of the CIO from back-office operations to someone who’s brought into executive decisions. And it highlighted the critical role of IT infrastructure in modern society.
“In many ways, networks have become the equivalent of roads. People have been relying on them for transport to work and for access to goods and services just as much as they ever had on the physical road system,” Finley explains.
That realization has also driven conversations and policy changes around promoting equity among people of all backgrounds and closing the digital divide.
Building Tech, Sharpening Skills
According to the State CIO Survey, CIOs believe low-code, no-code solutions will be the most important technology over the next few years. These solutions allow agencies to deploy applications quickly without bringing in programmers for extensive background work.
The other vital tool is a soft skill Finley refers to as “agility in communication.” No one can fully predict the next crisis, but everyone can work on building relationships and getting people to talk to one another.
“The fact that there were many of these relationships in place allowed people to move quickly,” he says.
In some areas of the country, nearly all business was conducted online. Others still required physical signatures. The pandemic, Finley notes, has leveled the field and forced everyone to figure out how to work digitally.
From a back-office view, people are now shoring up critical infrastructure and making changes where needed to prepare for the next emergency.
“On the customer-facing side, the shift to majority online access to services was already sort of in play, but it’s now there, and I don’t think it’s going back,” Finley says.
To keep the momentum going, Finley recommends keeping an open mind to continued change.
“People have recognized that what we thought couldn’t be done in anything less than a couple of years can often be done much quicker,” he says. “I think it’s going to accelerate the trend of breaking down these large multiyear, tens-of-millions-of-dollars projects into smaller, discrete elements that can be fielded much more quickly.”
As agencies seek solutions and services from the private sector, Finley expects to see increased emphasis placed on breaking down problems into smaller parts to accelerate speed-to-market and quick delivery of solutions. He also looks for greater overall public-private collaboration and more ongoing conversations about what agencies need and how businesses can help them.
“I think in the past, part of the challenge that the public sector has had is that so much of it was a relatively bureaucratic process,” Finley says.
When governments can simply state their business problems and invite companies to demonstrate how they might solve them, then work together to figure out a way to move forward, it’s a much healthier approach.
Preparing for the Next Crisis
The pandemic, Finley says, provided enough stress to highlight gaps and weak points so agencies can make changes that allow them to come out stronger and better than they were before. As government organizations look to a post-pandemic world, the biggest challenge might actually be the challenge of imagining what is possible, he notes.
The difficult part of preparing for the next challenge is the fact there’s no way to imagine all the contingencies that might come about. Disaster plans state and local governments had in place before the pandemic had some helpful elements, but they didn’t address all the questions that arose, Finley says.
“If there’s one lesson learned, it’s probably that agility and communication are the most important assets, because there’s no way you can possibly predict every type of crisis,” he says. “But what you need to have is a group of people who are ready to get together and be agile and respond to whatever that crisis is.”
Click here to read the full State CIO Survey.
This content is made possible by our sponsor Grant Thornton; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Route Fifty's editorial staff.