States and localities have made huge leaps in adopting new technology during the pandemic. Now they need to harness that momentum to fuel an equitable recovery and a sustainable future.
As the pandemic disrupted American life over the past two and a half years, two major factors influenced how well state, city and county governments were able to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19: the proliferation of civic tech and sector-specific IT solutions, along with the ability of those technologies to help center government services around constituents. Those innovations will also continue to impact the trajectory of recovery.
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Governments’ swift adoption of new technology has illustrated the powerful potential of digital transformation to create more human-centered, equitable public services. Governments at all levels upgraded core functions and became more user-friendly as agencies had to accommodate remote work, digitize processes and move citizen services online. Municipal and county offices quickly had to implement and stress-test new software and platforms to allow residents to access information and services and ensure that vulnerable and underserved communities could be reached. Moving the needle on equity became an urgent priority as leaders sought to remedy systemic causes of racial and economic disparities spotlighted by the pandemic.
What started as a need for business continuity not only catalyzed a boom in IT modernization but also raised new awareness of the critical role digital tools can play in translating policy goals into positive impact. Now public-sector leaders have a unique window of opportunity to mobilize a human-centered, fiscally sustainable approach to policymaking and implementation to support a strong recovery and resilient future.
First, the political winds are right. The flexibility local governments in particular showed in response to the pandemic has changed what constituents now expect from their interactions with their cities and counties. By expanding engagement and access to services through virtual town halls or digital payment and permitting solutions, for example, many jurisdictions set new standards for meeting the needs of both residents and their own employees.
At the same time, the uneven impact of the pandemic has prompted state and local officials to uncover and address systemic imbalances in how decisions get made and services are distributed. This focus on equitable governance also underpins much of the federal funding response through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and it sets a legislative course for measuring outcomes and prioritizing historically disadvantaged communities.
Second, as governments invested in new technologies at an unprecedented pace and scope, the market for sector-specific software services and civic tech applications exploded. This has proliferated purpose-built solutions that are specifically designed for public-sector functions such as budgeting, grants management, procurement, and permitting. While technology is not a silver bullet, these purpose-built solutions are making a tangible difference in streamlining operations, freeing up staff time to focus on high-value work, and supporting positive interaction between governments and their constituents.
This is especially crucial as many local governments are grappling with a severe workforce shortage that puts oversized pressure on overworked staff to deliver for their communities and jeopardizes governments’ capacity to effectively leverage what many view as a once-in-a-generation funding opportunity being directed to states and localities via the IIJA.
Which leads to the third and final point: there’s money to pay for it. Following on the $350 billion in ARPA fiscal recovery funds, the $1.2 trillion IIJA continues a historic funding windfall. But there are strings attached and hurdles to clear. The rules and policy priorities that will determine which jurisdictions receive the competitive portion of those funds will require those that compete for them to make data-driven, evidence-based decisions and track outcomes. To bolster that ability, governments will need the right tools and systems to support decision-makers and frontline staff in competing for grants, coordinating disparate funding streams, complying with reporting requirements, and ultimately ensuring that the investments generate positive results where they are needed the most.
While new toolsets provide an important key to unlock these opportunities, they must be accompanied by new mindsets. Much will hinge on state and local governments’ ability to build on the technical and policy lessons learned during the pandemic. Deploying ARPA and IIJA funding strategically and generating capacity for effective implementation must include steps to modernize the public-sector workplace in ways that will empower problem-solvers, boost efficiency, drive performance, and aid employee retention while inspiring the next generation of public servants.
Agency executives should seek to galvanize organizational leadership and staff buy-in to put customer experience at the center of this transformation. Our new playbook provides a starting guide for how jurisdictions can leverage federal funding sources and engage best-in-class technological solutions to advance those goals by prioritizing people, purpose, and sound fiscal planning for a locally powered, equitable future.