The Online Imperative of Local Government: Next Normal Survey Results

Written by Jonathan Wiersma

Your fellow local government leaders weigh-in on the future of citizen service delivery.

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If online citizen self-service functionality was a nice-to-have a few years ago, or even a few months ago, today, it’s imperative. With public sector offices across the country still closed, citizens still social distancing, and the novel coronavirus’s impact exceeding six million cases in the U.S. alone, what was once thought to be a stop-gap in business operations is today, the new normal.

In the summer of 2020, SeeClickFix, Route Fifty, The Atlas, and ELGL partnered together to issue a survey to local government leaders on the next normal in civic service. There were 386 local government officials and staff who shared their perspective on the impacts of COVID-19 on public service delivery. While 76 percent of respondents represented municipalities, insights were also provided by county employees, state officials, utility executives, tribal nation representatives, and special district staff. Insights were provided by individuals from a wide range of roles within local government. Respondents included mayors, city managers, planners, fire chiefs, communications directors, and chief innovation officers.

What the insights gleaned from the survey tell us is that communications and engagement are still paramount, but that digital innovation is now a fundamental component of the public sector service model. What follows are some of the report’s key insights.

Download the full survey from The Atlas or ELGL.

Shifting Priorities

Local government’s rapid evolution of priorities reflects their immediate response to COVID-19 and the social justice protests that occurred in the summer of 2020. Respondents consistently signaled expectations that local government work and public service delivery has been permanently changed.

Local_Gov_Top_Priorities

Factors that seem to be the highest priority for local governments right now and into the future include community and crisis communications, policing and systemic racism, public health, small business support, and enabling work from home:

  • The top priority six months ago: Community Engagement (44%)
  • The top priority now: Public Health (60%)
  • Anticipated top priority one year from now: Community Engagement (45%)

Budget Concerns

Ninety-four percent of respondents believe that their local government budget will be significantly impacted by revenue shortfalls caused by COVID-19 economic impacts.

Noted Top Impacts of Revenue Shortfalls:

Revenue_Shortfalls

Managing People

The pandemic has made a significant impact on local government employees and how they view their jobs and their roles in their organizations. These findings, paired with findings that local governments are seeking technology solutions, indicate that human resources, community engagement, and payroll and benefits should be included in the discussion about what technology can do to assuage the concerns raised about employee leadership development, benefits, and retirements, and morale.

  • Most respondents in smaller communities indicate that new leaders have been uncovered during the pandemic
  • A large percentage of respondents (70 percent) in larger communities say that planned retirements may be put on hold, likely due to concerns about the effects of COVID on the economy and retirement portfolios
  • Responses from both large and small communities indicate that employees aren’t doing well: morale has been significantly impacted due to concerns about COVID, constantly changing headlines and news, and new and revised working scenarios.

Silver Linings

While closed offices have exacerbated some existing challenges in local government, respondents report that they have also opened the door for new leaders and expanded the use of data-driven decision making especially in mid-size and larger local government organizations. Software and technology adoption have increased in the last few months and will continue to accelerate.

More than 95 percent of respondents shared that their city used software to maintain service levels during the pandemic.

Types of Software or Technology Used by Local Government During the Pandemic

Software_Priorities

Seventy-six percent say their cities will adopt more software to streamline public services moving forward. Respondents expect projects that move forward in the next twelve months will be focused on enabling work from home and flexible schedules, online revenue capture and payment, and community engagement and communications.

Anticipated Future Software and Technology Projects

Anticipated_Future_Projects

Approximately 80 percent of respondents believe that the shift from paper to digital processes will be permanent and bolstered as a result of this global pandemic, with 80 percent believing that software that promises savings (e.g., staff time) has become more attractive since March. That sentiment is strongest when asking about leadership.

When asked, “What do you hope will be a positive thing for local governments that comes out of this pandemic?” respondents had varied responses, but many were optimistic:

“A desire to explore newer tech and take more risks.” Director of IT Innovation, a small northeastern city

“Oh, and Zoom meetings—let’s keep those! And meetings that could have been an email are now emails, so also a good productivity shift.” - Director of Operations, a mid-size western city

Conclusion

Like much of the world, it’s clear that local government and public service delivery will look a lot different because of COVID-19. While there are still many challenges ahead as local government organizations adjust to the next normal, there are early signs that local governments will come out of this stronger, smarter, and more sustainable.