Local Governments Expect to Embrace Some—But Not All—Technology Post-Pandemic, Survey Finds

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Eighty-one percent of local leaders in The Atlas survey said they conducted board meetings virtually, but only 54% expect to continue the practice. Others, including digital permitting, community engagement and citizen requests, are likely here to stay.

After a year of tailoring their jobs to function during a pandemic, local government officials continue to believe that Covid-19 will have a lasting impact on the way they deliver services to constituents. But the day-to-day work of municipal governing probably won’t change forever, according to the results of a recent survey of city and county officials and employees.

The New Normal Survey, a joint effort among a group of organizations that work with local governments, asked government officials to share their predictions “about how public services will evolve as a result of Covid-19.” 

The survey, conducted online March 24 through April 7, questioned officials about their government's priorities (what were you focused on before the pandemic, and what are you focused on now?), impacts from Covid-19 (how did municipalities spend their 2020 relief funding?), adoption of new software and technology, and general inquiries about the future, including which changes might be permanent.

The questionnaire, completed by 599 respondents, was a follow-up to a similar survey last summer that sought to identify initial changes in service delivery amid the early stages of the pandemic. This year’s version gathered critical information about the ongoing changes in government services directly from the people responsible for delivering them, said Ellory Monks, co-founder of The Atlas, which coordinated the survey along with Engaging Local Government Leaders, CivicPulse, CivicPlus and Route Fifty. The Atlas and Route Fifty are owned by Government Executive Media Group.

“Many local governments in the United States are at a crucial turning point right now, as vaccine distribution becomes more widespread,” she said. “The New Normal Survey provides incredible data and insight into the lasting legacy of Covid-19 on local governments from the people best-suited to comment: local government employees themselves.”

Local priorities shift with the pandemic
According to the results, priorities in local government agencies have shifted dramatically since 2020. Last July, for example, 43% of survey respondents said they were prioritizing “work from home and workflow management;” by last month, that number had dropped to 28%. By contrast, 44% of respondents this year said they were focused on community engagement, a 14% jump from last year.

"Shifting priorities among local governments reflect many different current trends,” Monks said. “The increased focus on community engagement, for example, may be because of communications campaigns encouraging vaccination. But that increased focus on community engagement is also likely because of increasing expectations of local government when it comes to equity, inclusion and transparency.”

Despite those shifts, most respondents said they expected their governments to continue to prioritize pandemic-related issues up to a year from now, including community engagement (50%), small business support (38%) and public health and wellness (33%).

But the daily changes—including reduced capacity for on-site staff, a shift from paper to digital services and slowed-down processes—are not likely to remain permanent, respondents said. And while local governments as a whole moved quickly to embrace new technology at the onset of the pandemic, only some platforms will stay in use.

For example, 81% of survey participants said they conducted board meetings virtually during the pandemic, but only 54% of them expect to continue that practice indefinitely.

But other new systems are here to stay. Ninety percent of respondents expect forms to remain digital, while 87% predict that residents will continue to be able to pay fees and bills online. Other likely permanent adoptions include digital permitting (84%), community engagement (83%) and citizen requests (81%).

Those results line up with citizen expectations, according to the survey, which found that 53% of respondents expect residents to demand faster response times moving forward, up from 38% last year. Seventy percent of governments expect to adopt more technology to meet those needs, while 33% said they would rely more on “external partners” and 29% pledged to continue to work to remove silos within their organizations.

“It’s clear that local government and public service delivery will look a lot different because of Covid-19,” according to a report on the survey results. “While there are still many challenges ahead as local government organizations adjust to the new normal, there are early signs that local governments will come out of this stronger, smarter, and more sustainable.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: Nevada Plan to Let Tech Firms Form Local Governments is Scaled Back

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