Connecting state and local government leaders
Experts testified before a U.S. House committee about government digital services, noting the pandemic pushed long-standing information technology issues to the forefront.
The coronavirus pandemic forced state and local governments to come to terms with longtime information technology inadequacies overnight.
But as governments emerge from under the pandemic’s shadow, many are looking to confront those inadequacies head on by modernizing aging systems and improving customer service, IT experts told a congressional committee this week.
“All of a sudden we are talking about customer experience, which is relatively new in the government realm,” said Alan Shark, the executive director of CompTIA’s Public Technology Institute.
Governments haven’t historically felt they needed to compete for “customers” in the way private companies do—residents who used their services would be there regardless of how easy or difficult the process was, Shark said. But the failure of so many government agencies when it came to administering aid like unemployment benefits, or food or rental assistance, underscored the importance of overhauling IT infrastructure in order to provide a better user experience, said Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.
“Many of the most significant and critical services were hampered by technology platforms that were not flexible, adaptable and scalable,” Robinson said in prepared remarks. “While improving digital services and legacy modernization initiatives have been a top priority for state CIOs for the past few years, Covid-19 was the catalyst to drastically expedite many of these efforts in an unprecedented manner.”
Shark, Robinson and others testified before the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday about ways that state and local governments can improve IT services. One solution embraced by states is the creation of digital services teams that can examine and simplify the digital experience that customers have when they access government programs, Robinson said.
Showing government officials how difficult the process is as a user can be eye-opening and serve as a catalyst for change, said Amanda Renteria, the CEO of Code for America, which worked with local governments amid the pandemic to help them address IT issues.
“It’s easy once you do that to see something is wrong with the system—that we actually haven’t designed it around the people we are serving,” Renteria said.
Implementing better IT infrastructure and cybersecurity measures isn’t just about upgrading technology, experts said. State and local governments will also need to address staffing and recruitment issues that have long-plagued the public sector workforce.
The shortage of IT professionals is a problem for local governments, which have difficulty competing for talent with the higher-paying private sector, Shark said. But some states have begun to try to tackle the problem by embracing the pandemic-era shift to remote work and recruiting IT professionals who do not live in their regions, Robinson said.
“States are opening up recruiting outside their state boundaries,” he said. “We might find this as a post-Covid benefit.”
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.