IT Challenges Supporting Remote Work for Public Sector Staff

Written by Jennifer Elliott

The public sector's abrupt shift to telework has revealed both challenges and opportunities for municipal IT.
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Local government service and citizen interactions have, for decades, been marked by in-person, face-to-face, smile-and-a-handshake interactions. All that changed in the Spring of 2020 when the novel coronavirus forced municipal offices to close and municipal staff to find ways to recreate their high-touch service from their living room, which suddenly became their home office. For administrative IT leadership, enabling staff to work from home was a personal safety necessity that led to IT and system access challenges—and many initial sleepless nights.

While months have passed, we’re still battling COVID-19, and many public offices are still closed or have staff working at least partially remotely. IT departments have learned much about enabling administrators to effectively conduct their responsibilities remotely while keeping data and systems secure. More importantly, they’ve also realized that many of their installed legacy systems are woefully incapable of meeting decentralized teams’ needs and those of their socially distanced citizens.

The Shift to Remote Work in the Public Sector

While the private sector has been more open to the idea of teleworking, particularly in the technology sector, the full-time shift of nearly all non-essential workers to a remote model rocked nearly every business entity in the country. Suddenly, people weren’t working from home so much as they were living in their office. This reality was especially true for public sector workers desperately trying to assuage citizens’ fears of a global pandemic.

According to a survey that American City and County conducted in March 2020, 61 percent of municipalities allowed their staff to work from home if their role enabled such capabilities. That percentage represents people who, for years if not decades, have worked in the same office, on the same equipment, completing the same workflows. Suddenly, with no warning, training, and in many cases, no transportable home equipment, employees were expected to keep calm and carry on. Since the woeful beginning of our nation’s grand teleworking experience, what we’ve learned about the role of cloud-based technology as a workforce multiplier and collaboration facilitator is destined to reshape how citizens interact with their municipality long-term.

From Paper Forms to Mobile Applications

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One of the most significant reasons that it took a pandemic to open up work-from-home possibilities for non-citizen facing administrative staff members is paper. Municipal staff’s reliance on paper forms, paper files, and physical documents has held them back from a shift to remote work on pace with the more technologically advanced private sector.

The shift from the office to home has not been easy. According to a survey from SAP Concur, nearly half of all state and local government decision-makers say adapting outdated organizational policies to remote work were major challenges of transitioning their department to home office environments. Now, out of a desperate need to give staff remote access to forms and files, IT departments are rapidly implementing future-proofed systems to enable anytime, anywhere access to mobile applications and citizen service functionality. Seventy-five percent of SAP Concur respondents report that COVID-19 has accelerated their department’s decision to invest in cloud-based solutions. Such processes include agenda and meeting management software, recreation management software, and applicant tracking software.

SAP Concur reports that 70 percent of state and local government IT leaders acknowledge that there are financial accountability benefits of adopting cloud-based technology. They say migrating to mobile practices or adapting outdated policies would give finance and administrative departments a better handle on financial operations in the future if all or a portion of their staff worked remotely.

While such systems are designed to accommodate essential municipal functions and workflows, municipal IT and department leaders recognize that they need custom applications to facilitate unique processes. To achieve custom programming without costly time and money spent on third-party software engineers, they are turning to the power of low-code, rapid application software.

Low-code is a software development approach that allows for faster application development and solution launch with minimal hand-coding. It uses visual modeling in a graphical interface to build and configure applications. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, low-code software systems are helping local governments rapidly bring citizen services online that for decades have been handled via in-person, in-office, paper-based processes. Such workflows are no longer feasible for administrations whose staff members were unexpectedly relegated to newly adopted home offices to maintain social distance. With low-code development, local governments are maintaining business continuity and future-proofing their citizen service model.

Cybersecurity and Telework

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing municipal IT departments in the wake of COVID-19’s telework mandate is the need to maintain secure systems with employees working from home networks and not their administration’s closely monitored system. IT administrators know that to protect their assets, they must educate all teleworkers to understand the vulnerabilities they face from bad actors attempting phishing and social engineering tactics and take ownership of their endpoints’ security.

One of the greatest risks to municipal data in the teleworking environment is the use of vulnerable web applications. Unlike cloud-based software, web applications can be targeted as entry points for bad actors, and without the protection of in-office filters to guard against malicious activity, at-home workers, their equipment, and the greater administrative network could be at risk. IT experts stress the importance of education and strategic vendor partnerships, to host vital interconnected communication platforms, like their local government website.

The Ongoing Digitization of Local Government

Ask any public sector IT leader or city/county manager where they stand on the digital transformation spectrum, and few will likely claim finish line victory. Having been challenged to adopt digital-first systems seemingly overnight, our IT leaders are doing their best to revolutionize decades of paper-based processes. They are embracing virtual meeting and conferencing technology, digital file repositories, citizen-service online functionality, new security safeguards, and building custom applications. It will continue to take time to achieve optimized e-governance, but the ultimate payoff is a future-proofed, accessible, transparent, and modern form of democratic community leadership.

Click here to find out where your community stands on the digital transformation spectrum today.