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As governments and citizens continue to come to grips with the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing has become clear: big challenges lie ahead of us.
We need to build a more just, equitable, and inclusive society — one where all can live, work, and prosper in peace and security.
We need to equip the workforce of today with the right skills to be successful in the new collar jobs of the future.
And we need to ensure that we develop and deploy technologies that are used for good; and place tighter guardrails on those that could be used to inflict harm or injustice.
Although much needs to be done now, we should also look beyond this pandemic and consider opportunities for how we as a country can come out of it stronger. Expanding telehealth availability and broadband access are two such near-term opportunities. Such initiatives can have a significant impact for Americans by improving health outcomes and enabling access to digital services.
But we are more than patients and consumers. We are also citizens. As such, we should look at considering ways that all levels of government, but especially states and localities, can improve ways they support and engage with all of us. A more digitized government infrastructure can afford us the ability to “skip the trip,” allowing all citizens the possibility of more equitable access to quality healthcare, government services, education, and more – from wherever they may reside. First, however, we need to bring the way government works into the 21st century.
One key example: the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the real human cost of antiquated government IT systems. Many state unemployment payment processing systems recently struggled under the weight of historic surges in applications and payments under the Paycheck Protection Program. Relying on legacy IT equipment has continued to hold many states back from being able to reap the benefits of the digital age — benefits that would not only improve the flexibility and effectiveness of government and the provision of services for citizens, but also cut costs in the long-term as well.
As detailed in an IBM Business of Government report, Oklahoma’s then-CIO Bo Reese led an end-to-end modernization effort that saw the consolidation of the state’s IT infrastructure into a single data center. The result was the state’s expenditure on IT dropped by $112 million annually, and it avoided an additional $260 million in costs through improved contracting and acquisition. Although Reese’s initiative was focused on modernizing process rather than technology itself, this case study speaks to the impact that even slight adjustments to state IT management can have on a government’s capabilities, revenue, and expenses, not to mention the experience it provides to citizens.
New York is no stranger to these benefits. The same year Oklahoma began its IT modernization efforts, New York’s own WebNY initiative created a roadmap for updating state agencies’ digital presence, moving to an open source content management platform model. The result was a massive increase in digital foot traffic, improved scheduling effectiveness for DMV appointments, and a halving of wait times at DMV offices. The state has found similar success in its implementation of advanced analytics to minimize — to the tune of $1.2 billion over 6 years — improper tax refund requests.
Despite these successes, however, there is much more that can be done to make “skip the trip” a viable option. To accelerate that reality, states and localities should prioritize the following:
- User-centric agility – Adopt new ways for government to operate, using agile principles and putting the diversity of citizen experiences and desired program outcomes at the forefront.
- People – Reform processes for hiring, developing, and retaining workers (especially those that champion change); and leverage data and technologies to build the workforce of the future.
- Data – Innovation comes from accessing and using trusted data, with appropriate privacy and security protections built in, that transparently represents the diversity of citizens we need to serve. That data needs to be appropriately integrated with various sources to create insight and influence decision making, actions and results.
- Be Open – As government processes should be re-examined and re-architected, choose an open approach. Using open technologies for cloud computing, such as Linux and Kubernetes, can help to more securely deploy, run and manage data and applications on the cloud you choose- without the risk of being locked in.
- Risk mitigation – Manage cybersecurity and build resiliency to meet the mission of government. Consider end-to-end encryption and network technologies such as blockchain, that enhances the security of online records.
One example of integrating these priorities is the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), which engaged in a public-private partnership with IBM to expand and improve access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for New Yorkers.
The partnership helps HRA’s online self-service tool keep pace with citizen expectations, providing New Yorkers with a modern, human-centered application process that is accessible from their mobile devices – virtually, whenever and wherever they choose.
Examples like this showcase the possibilities of what modernized government can offer its citizens. In order for all citizens to benefit from the choice to “skip the trip,” however, states and municipalities need to continue working towards updating legacy technology infrastructure.
So long as states stay behind the curve in digital adoption and IT improvements, the potential benefits of advanced innovations — from 5G and AI, to telemedicine and remote work possibilities — will remain elusive.
-Ryan Hagemann, Co-Director, IBM Policy Lab
For more information, see these additional resources.