It appears evident that no one will look back at 2020 with any regret or nostalgia. Everyone will have their stories to tell for decades. For local governments 2020 was the year of the “great pivot” towards online services and remote work that transformed government in just a matter of weeks. Having conversed with hundreds of local government tech leaders as well as reviewing the many futuristic tech predictions in recent months, I compiled a composite of what cities and counties can reasonably expect in 2021.
- Cybersecurity focus intensifies as the shift to a remote workforce becomes normalized. The growth of ransomware attacks places more pressure for IT to be more proactive and greater investment in IT resources will be required. Localities will have no choice but to place cyber funding as a much higher priority.
- Managed services grow as local governments struggle to keep up with cybersecurity, application and storage needs. Many local governments will find that they can better achieve their operational objectives by turning to managed service providers who can leverage their infrastructure amongst many accounts thus offering the potential for better and more secure services, and expectantly in a cost-effective manner.
- The CIO stature has risen and is now recognized for the leadership role CIOs played throughout the pandemic. The overall role of the CIO is becoming rightfully elevated and will continue to have a major impact in the way services are offered to its internal customers and citizens for years to come. The rise of the CIO also lifts the careers of tech professionals in all areas.
- Citizen centric focus grows in emphasis and importance. Citizens have become more insistent that they be treated as stakeholders as opposed to mass consumers of services. Public managers have observed that greater citizen focus leads to improved communications, citizen satisfaction, and builds a greater sense of community pride along with meaningful community involvement.
- Remote work options become permanent as public managers recognize the importance and efficiency of having at least some workers maintain their option of working from home. Underlying this shift is the recognition that productivity can be measured, and accountability maintained just as well as onsite staff.
- The future of the office is changed forever. Based on the experience of the “Great Pivot of 2020” many question the need to expand, build or maintain costly office space that may no longer be viable. With the turn to more online services supported by workers from almost any location. There will of course always be a need for physical space to meet but individual offices may shift to shared temporary workstations used by workers when they are in the office. As local governments seek ways to cut operational costs, office space may top the list.
- Broadband expansion in affordability, access, and accessibility issues was amplified by the pandemic. Increased pressure to provide better digital broadband solutions will gain greater attention and action. The digital divide and issues of digital equity was further exposed as many school-aged children who lacked adequate broadband were unable to keep up with their classmates. Moreover, the pandemic revealed additional shortcomings where families found the broadband they had was no longer adequate to support a family staying mostly at home. And in numerous cases, many local government workers found themselves without adequate broadband coverage based on either where they lived, or because of limited plans in their area. Expanded broadband can be achieved through building mini-Wi-Fi systems where legal, provide equipment to the underserved, public private partnerships with telecom providers, and subsidized broadband plans.
- Greater local state collaboration - especially in cybersecurity will increase as the need to share, collaborate grows. Many state CIO’s have indicated a desire to include local governments in their strategic planning and have expressed a strong desire to do more by way of service offerings, information sharing, and group purchasing. Among the priorities, cybersecurity always comes up first.
- Emerging tech grows in state and local government; AI, blockchain, autonomous vehicles. Innovation in the use of new technologies is not the sole domain of the Federal government and private enterprise. By necessity local governments are already augmenting staff with citizen-facing applications with chatbots powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence. Blockchain applications is already being adopted in land records and deeds and is starting to grow into more sophisticated and secure database applications. Finally, autonomous vehicles designed to reduce accidents and free up clogged roadways continues to make headway.
- Digital infrastructure will eclipse physical infrastructure as local governments continue to seek digital transformation of government services that satisfy citizens by helping save both time and money. While roads and utilities will always be in need of on-going maintenance, local government are focusing on new efficiencies as they turn to digital solutions that involve investments in fiber, 5G broadband, and more data input and analytics systems.
- Micro transportation grows as well as flexible service options by demand. Public transportation has always played a critical role in reducing congestion and providing services for those who cannot afford or are unable to drive their own vehicles. The growth of shared ride services such as Uber and Lyft will play an increased role in supplementing government programs that serve the elderly and physical challenged enabling them to more efficiently coordinate and schedule rides to doctor appointments, pick up prescriptions or food shopping. The concept of ride sharing will continue to grow with bicycles, electric scooters, and more flexible rental of vehicles that are charged by the hour and coordinated through apps.
- Recent experience with the great tech pivot will secure improved tech funding for years to come. The pandemic proved the value and absolute need for technology support. Most believe that even with the end of the current pandemic, technology will still be needed as a strategic asset for all-hazard operations. As more local governments have moved to a pay-as-you go model thus paying for services out of annual operating budgets (OpEx) it will be more difficult, if not impossible, to delay or defer payments as had been done in the past with capital expenditures (CapEx).
In summary, technology, especially information technology has grown in importance and has become a vital asset. 2020 may have been a terrible year on many levels, but when it comes to technology in government it was a year that they stepped up and were both appreciated and acknowledged. With the pressure to do more with less, technology has become an inescapable ally in helping to reduce costs and working towards making government work smarter. Thus as the smart city movement may have run its course, it will be replaced by simply striving towards smarter governments.