The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the need for governments to modernize and digitize. Without the necessary digital frameworks to widely share information, particularly last spring, Americans were told to quarantine and made to rely on inadequate information from government and public health officials. More so, some essential government services have struggled to properly serve citizens as offices dealt with shutdowns, layoffs, and social distancing regulations.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, some states have improved their technical capacities while others have not. For those living in areas that have failed to address digital information dissemination, getting in contact with local officials and state government agencies remains extremely difficult, and finding reliable information can be confusing and daunting.
For communities to track COVID-19 outbreaks and to enable citizens to make the most informed choices about their behavior, readily available digital resources are vital. An example of ‘information drought’ and gaps can be seen in the different approaches taken by two neighboring communities in Nebraska. In Omaha, the city’s website homepage is the only form of communication to its constituents, besides the mayor’s Facebook page. This pales in comparison to neighboring Lincoln, where the mayor and city’s health directors share COVID-19 posts in real-time via a resource portal with several language options. In this way, Lincoln makes necessary information easily accessible from a variety of sources to reach various audiences.
Resource portals and digital interactive apps have become the most effective ways of meeting citizens’ information and service needs during the pandemic. In New Jersey, the state’s Office of Innovation works with third-party vendors — organizations like Yext, a cloud-based service provider, as well as a non-profit think tank called the Federation of American Scientists to create a question-and-answer tool for citizens to address COVID-19 inquiries. These services provide basic information, freeing up other services working on controlling the pandemic to focus on their primary goals instead of repeating information to the general public time and time again.
The necessity of digitizing is becoming apparent not only with information dissemination but also in combating the overwhelming strain in-person services put on government services like state unemployment systems. With unemployment reaching a staggering 30 million, at one point, unemployment claims overwhelmed public sector systems in many states. But some states are using technology to mitigate the impact on facilities and workers.
For instance, Oklahoma rapidly created a portal that allows people to apply for and track their unemployment benefits online. This allows the state to process 30,000 claims per week without adding additional customer service representatives. Portals like this, which also allow for social distancing, could help states like Alabama, where hundreds of people needing help with their unemployment benefits were forced to stand in lines and wait outside for hours to speak with an in-person representative.
There have also been long lines putting people at unnecessary risk during the pandemic at state departments of motor vehicles (DMV). DMVs have long been notorious for inefficiencies and long lines, even pre-COVID-19, but with social distancing and massive backlogs, these departments have been forced to digitize more and more services. Since March, when many states’ DMVs were closed as the pandemic hit, an array of DMV services were forced to go online. Now, identification cards, vehicle title transfers, car registrations, driver’s license renewals, and other things can increasingly be done online in some states. Online DMV transactions in California, for example, went from 1.8 million in July 2019 to 2.2 million in July 2020.
Unfortunately, there are still some DMVs that see lines forming for as early as 3 a.m. for their services. Lines only decrease once people realize they can process many of their documents prior to their visits, making visits shorter and more efficient. With limited services being provided in person, DMVs should focus on improving these virtual services and solutions that can reduce the amount of time being wasted during some in-person visits. States should also consider allowing more of these online services to continue, even after the pandemic subsides.
COVID-19 has also forced many legal facilities to shut down across the country. In California, the pandemic has crippled the court and justice system. In places like Los Angeles County, all civil jury trials have been postponed until 2021. The Superior Courts in the Bay Area have ceased civil jury trials until at least late this year, as well as in San Diego, where criminal trials won’t happen until at least late this year and judges estimate civil jury trials will only return in 2021.
This backlog of cases may take years to figure out. In Wisconsin, court leaders understood the gravity of the pandemic and boosted connectivity to the courts for virtual proceedings as well as increased the number of trained staffers in the necessary technology to continue court business online. Texas has also adjusted to the pandemic and recently carried out the nation’s first criminal trial via Zoom.
However, these successes have not been administered in every state and they are too uncommon. Americans depend on the justice system to help ensure society runs smoothly, and while the coronavirus pandemic has brought an increase in wrongful housing evictions and a multitude of new legal questions, the state and local governments must adjust. Our country needs to tackle these pending courtroom problems, and it seems online court hearings and trials can be a long-term solution to help deal with them.
In comparison to the public sector, a number of private industries have done an excellent job of meeting demand during the pandemic through technological innovations. With COVID-19 and the fear of indoor and in-person activities, many are choosing to engage with online purchasing services instead. Some savvy companies are gaining business due to their adaption to digitization to enhance customer experience at home.
For example, fashion company Asos uses augmented reality (AR) technology to show clients clothing on a range of different models with varying body types to better imagine the fit of an item. Instead of buying 16 different tops in three sizes, now people can have a more well-rounded idea of what an item would look like on their body type so they can shop more efficiently.
AR has also been implemented by the furniture industry. The days of idly shopping at furniture stores have been sidelined by the virus, making it difficult for many to visualize a potential piece of furniture in their home. To meet these needs, Ikea has updated its AR technology and its Place app now allows you to visualize multiple pieces of Ikea furniture, instead of the previous one-piece per AR visualization, in a digital representation of your room. Ikea has even extended its AR practices to provide interactive assembly manuals, showing users instructions visually on their phone in compliment to the products themselves.
Private companies’ ability to digitally adapt to consumer needs in the pandemic will weed out those who refuse to evolve and reward those who continue to innovate. With digitization, more companies have been able to survive and even thrive under these conditions, but also some have been forced to close. The nature of the private sector differs from government-provided services.
As companies that do not offer digital alternatives to in-person services close due to lack of business and are replaced by more digitized alternatives that meet consumer needs, many government services continue to provide subpar offerings that fail to meet the needs of many Americans. Without pressure from competitors or the market, state and federal government agencies continue to throw taxpayer funds at failing programs instead of moving towards digitalization.
To make more effective changes toward digitization, government culture needs to change. When the government fails to live up to expectations created by private companies that adapt to use digitalization, citizens grow dissatisfied but because they can’t take their business elsewhere, governments are hesitant to adapt to new and evolving practices. COVID-19 has made digital services no longer a convenience, but a necessity to keep Americans connected.
Digitization should not be seen as a challenge and a nuisance by government agencies, but rather as a long term money saving pursuit. While some states have understood this, many pars of U.S. governments are still fighting against the digital ways of the future.
Digital applications can especially make a difference in labor-intensive customer services the government provides. For instance, having necessary forms online that allow citizens to “self-serve,” reduces the need for in-person service employees in state-run offices. This provides a safer environment for both citizens and employees during the pandemic. The rest of the country needs to be following states like Oklahoma and California that have implemented these changes because they are investments. Self-service programs will be equally as useful post-COVID.
With these digital programs, stress will be reduced on employees in their roles and make visits more streamlined, providing more efficient service to citizens. They also allow government programs to potentially serve more citizens every day, as in-person processing times are reduced.
To create effective digital services, the government should focus on the customer experience. The reason why many private companies are so successful with their digital services is that they focus on how their services satisfy their customers. Satisfaction comes from 1) the service’s success, and 2) the service’s ease of use. Positive customer service and experience mean repeat customers, which build successful businesses. Without these elements, private companies typically die.
Because it holds a monopoly on its services, governments have no pressure of losing customers. To fix this mentality, the government should be doing user tests on new digital services to create effective and sustainable new systems. If a service does not provide a positive experience for normal citizens, then it should be fixed to do so. With more user-friendly services, especially digital, the government could see an uptick in citizens engaging with the government and an increase in citizens using digital services that decreases the strain on in-person employees.
To help with these transitions and convert traditional in-person government services to digital, the government can work with private sector leaders, who have already created successful digital services. Companies like Camino are already doing so. If citizens are filing with the government for services, they are able to use Camino’s program that will prompt users to help make sure every document necessary for filing is filled out, as well as provide them with trackers to see where their forms are in the processing time. Programs like Camino’s could be valuable to citizens moving forward in their experience interacting with the government and the government should be encouraging more models like this.
Digitization will take time to reach every American citizen. For digital services to work for all, everyone needs access and training in digital technologies. Populations that may need special attention during a transition to digitization include low-income households and the elderly. In the meantime, with more digital services being utilized by those who already have available access and familiarity with using the Internet, in-person service slots will be more accessible to those who need them.
Without a shift toward digitization, the government will continue to waste American taxpayers’ money by funding inadequate and inefficient necessary services that don’t meet citizens’ needs. While some cities and states understand this, a lot of other state and local governments need to stop fighting the ways of the future.
True, it will be a massive undertaking to digitize services across the country, however, digital reliance is not going away. As more and more private sector services become available online, the government will only continue to provide unsatisfactory and unnecessarily expensive services to citizens if it does not move to modernize.
The U.S. is home to one of the most innovative technology hubs of human capital in the world. The government should be using our robust tech industry’s experience and technology to serve citizens and provide essential services digitally.