State and local government IT leaders delivered relatively optimistic forecasts for the role of technology and the ability of government to deliver better services in a post-pandemic environment during a panel discussion June 15 at e.Republic’s virtual State of GovTech 2021 conference.

Considering the black swan nature of coronavirus pandemic, predictions for the future might seem chancy, but panelists took their best shots at the shape of the future based on their own experiences over the past year and a half.  The panel featured: Mark Barham, IT director for the City of Williamsburg, Va.; Kevin Limehouse, director of innovation for Charleston County, S.C.; Rob Lloyd, CIO of the City of San Jose, Calif., Lindsey Parker, chief technology officer of Washington D.C., along with moderator Kirsten Wyatt, executive director and co-founder of Engaging Local Government Leaders.

Parker set the tone with her opening remarks for sentiments that were echoed throughout the panel discussion. “We used to be in this mindset that we CIOs have to sell,” she explained. “We have to go around to different agencies and say ‘we need you to work with us on this new idea, five of you come together, we can all purchase it together, and we can get this done.’”

However, the pandemic compressed processes that used to take years into ones that sometimes took only weeks. As a result, Parker is now dealing with a lot more interest, a lot more motivation, and momentum to really change the way technology is working within government.

“It’s an exciting time to be a local government,” she said. “We really haven’t seen this type of change to the ways that we work, the processes that we use, the tools that we use to implement, in 20 years, if not more. In truth, the way that we are delivering services is going to be more user centric, more user focused, less agency specific, less sort of government wonky, and it should be a pleasure to deal with the government going forward.”

Barnham chimed in, admitting his city of just 15,000 souls was the “little guy” on the panel, but with similar challenges over the past year.

“None of us had any idea that a pandemic was going to come, but we were able to leverage systems that we put in place years ago for different reasons,” he said.  As a result, the government was positioned to enable remote work and streaming city council meetings. Plus, it demonstrated the value of their GIS investment over the years. “We were able to understand where our vulnerable communities are, especially as we started standing up vaccination clinics,” he said.

Barnham said that with everybody working remotely the value of artificial intelligence also was more clearly demonstrated, and improved service delivery to constituents. “There was a lot of time where there wasn’t anyone in the office, but the business of government continued, and a lot of that was largely responsible, through our use of artificial intelligence,” he said.

Lloyd emphasized that the number one priority during the pandemic was to protect lives “and then make sure our people have a safe workplace so that they could then take care of that community we care so much about.” Fortunately, the city had been investing in the basics over the previous four years from a strategic plan that was created in 2017. “And the nice thing about the pandemic is that we were ready,  so it allowed us to really congregate around one focus,” he said.

Lloyd also praised the San Jose emergency operation center model where they were completely focused on problems so “all the silos faded away.” He continued, “that was a very enabling and innovative structure for us to be able to do things that in the past just weren’t a high priority because other priorities were higher, but then this public health emergency caused our priorities to shift. And now we have more focus than ever on our community.”

Limehouse, who is not a CIO but rather a project officer focusing on innovation and partnerships, said that “change is hard in government, and sometimes getting down through the silos is very difficult.” However, the pandemic forced changes in the status quo. “When you’re forced to do those things, and you realize we can be virtual, or we can engage with our citizens in these ways, or we can work with these people and get things done in a better way,” then “it forced us to reevaluate our thinking,” he said.

Limehouse closed with a favorite quote of his from Henry Ford – “If I had asked people, they would have said they needed faster horses.” In a similar vein, dealing with innovation is  something he always thinks about.

“In government, sometimes we go for faster horses versus trying to figure something different out, and I think that’s where were are now,” he said. “I think the best thing that has happened from the pandemic is that people see possibilities, and the opportunity to connect with one another and work more together, because we’re all in it together.”

Wyatt concurred in her conclusion, saying, “Hopefully, the best thing is that we’re thinking about things differently, and we’re working together.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs