Rethinking Government Services in the Wake of COVID-19

Numerous consequences have emerged in the weeks since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of opportunity and loss of connection. Americans and citizens in countries around the world were forced to pivot in their daily life, facing considerable difficulty in accessing necessary and important tools and resources to survive and adapt. Governments and public sector institutions also struggled to adapt and were not well-positioned to operate in remote environments or to provide constituent services digitally. 

As Congress continues to craft future stimulus bills meant to combat the health crisis, our federal elected officials would be wise to include federal funding intended for the modernization of state IT systems. A dedicated pot of funding accessible by states for the purposes of technology investment will do wonders for state agencies, helping to realize efficiencies almost immediately and allowing constituents to better utilize state and local services.

Upgrading equipment can be a slow process, subject to legislative agenda and budget cycles, but utilizing dated technologies to respond to modern challenges ultimately harms the constituent. The inability to file an unemployment claim successfully online may seem like a simple nuisance to some, but it may mean the inability for an individual to feed their family or pay a mortgage for another. Staggered or choppy access to online learning portals may significantly impede a student’s learning and development trajectory. A lack of infrastructure conducive to support remote work may leave workers behind or put their job at risk. 

Take schools as just one example: UNESCO estimates that some 1.5 billion children in 195 countries were affected by pandemic-driven school closures. All told, those closures affected 91 percent of the world’s population. While not all schools and students have access to the Internet and the cloud technologies it enables, many of these children were able to connect with teachers for remote video classes, to receive and submit assignments, take tests and remain in contact with teachers and classmates. We’ve seen schools in the U.S. adapt quickly to teaching via Zoom and Amazon Appstream 2.0. In Brazil, Somos Educação from Cogna, an educational group, is supporting 1.3 million students with online classes through the use of its Plurall educational platform.

Or take unemployment benefits and the changes in federally funded, state-run benefits programs that followed passage of massive COVID-19 relief programs. Many systems were overwhelmed as millions of people filed for unemployment benefits across the United States, and some were forced to create temporary fixes by diverting millions of dollars of precious budget funds to buy new physical servers and other equipment to support legacy infrastructure.

In many cases, cloud technologies were able to help organizations overcome many of these mountainous hurdles with little delay. In the state of New Mexico, a cloud-based contact center solution fielded over 20,000 calls, answering 98 percent of them in an average of 21 seconds. In Rhode Island, the Department of Labor and Training integrated a solution in just 10 days. In its first full day, nearly 75,000 Rhode Island residents successfully filed continuing claims with the new system. Agency leaders accomplished in days and weeks what would have taken months or years using conventional processes. In other words, speed matters and the cloud enables speed like nothing else.

States that strategically invested in innovative technologies like public commercial cloud prior to the pandemic have more adeptly responded to its challenges. California, for example, has won plaudits for sharing and managing COVID-19 data, and for delivering services smoothly and effectively in the midst of the crisis. What set the state up for that success was a pre-pandemic sprint to revamp its citizen services. Last winter, California revamped some 17 processes over a three-month drive to reinvent its digital services delivery. No one knew when that started that a pandemic and shutdown was just over the horizon, but when the pandemic was declared, California was ready. 

As we wade out of emergency response and into certain phases of recovery, governments are facing longer-term challenges: budget shortfalls, high unemployment and continued management of the health crisis. Rethinking how governments handle technology can and should be part of a solution for recovery. It also should be a part of a preparedness strategy. 

There is no telling when the COVID-19 crisis will truly end and the only thing we know for certain is that no one can predict the future. What leaders can do is prepare — to position their agencies for a flexible response to any eventuality, and the best way to do that is to leverage the most flexible platforms and solutions available. 

Shannon Kellogg is vice president of public policy at Amazon, where he leads the company’s public policy efforts in support of the Amazon Web Services business in the Americas — managing government affairs professionals in Canada, the United States (federal and state levels) and in Latin America — and focuses on issues such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, cybersecurity, procurement policy, workforce development and renewable energy.

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