Keeping Government Open While the Doors to City Hall Are Closed: Observations from the Field

  • Director of Health and Human Services Strategy and Business Development, Oracle Public Sector

Amid the worst public health crisis that most of us have ever experienced, ordinary people are now publicly lauded as American heroes: healthcare workers, janitors, grocery store clerks, educators, and government employees.

Yes, that’s right. Government workers. Governors and public health officials have never been more visible and employees are working tirelessly to keep government open while the doors to city hall are shut. All while we adapt to our new reality of constant hand washing, homework and schooling, social distancing, more hand washing, and, of course, Zooming.

Yet within all this upheaval, we are also seeing a growing sense of community, an urgency to innovate and find solutions amidst the pursuit of a “new normal.” This is especially true in government. For example: In the past, most government agencies resisted the concept of working from home—preferring instead to stand firm on the traditional eight-hour, in-person workday. Now that the coronavirus has forced most government workers to carry out their jobs from home, government managers are seeing that telework is indeed producing real, measurable, and meaningful work. Consider how Kansas City has adapted to teleworking. And Virginia, Nebraska, Maryland and Missouri are among the states rapidly adjusting.

The crisis has also forced government leaders to re-examine the workflows associated with some of their most important programs. For example, the Coronavirus Response Act (CARES) provided the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with authority to allow states to modify procedures and make it easier for families to continue participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). One such modification—which all states have opted to use—is the flexibility to conduct quality control interviews by phone instead of in person, and to extend the deadline to process case reviews to maintain program integrity while still complying with social distancing requirements. Will this flexibility remain when the crisis is in our rearview mirror? That’s hard to say right now, but it has proven that government can adapt—and adapt quickly.

There are several examples of innovation in government that were driven by the need to adapt in the changing COVID-19 world. Here are some from all levels including state, county, and city:

  • The city of San Jose recently hosted a series of webinars for residents to provide important information about social safety net opportunities related to the crisis – all made available in multiple languages.
  • The state of New York assembled a digital SWAT team of internal and external experts to quickly develop mobile services and more robust data analytics capabilities to better respond to citizen requests for information.
  • The city of Austin repurposed its staff and vehicle resources from local transit agency CapMetro to deliver food (42,000 meals in the first two weeks), and personal protective equipment to the local medical community.
  • And in the spirit of private/public cooperation, Tarrant County, Texas worked with several large IT companies (including Splunk, Adobe, Oracle, Accenture and others) along with the non-profit Alliance for Innovation to develop a screening website and auto-scheduling and workflow platform for COVID-19 testing. In fact, the National Governor’s Association was so impressed they reached out to their members to promote the platform.

There’s no turning back from this new digital world of government. But here’s where I see the next opportunity. With the kind of tools and processes available today: from low-code development software to crowd sourcing and responsive design, never has there been such a perfect storm of opportunity for anyone to become a change agent. The opportunity is wide open for any constituent to participate in remaking government in a post-crisis world. It’s your time to get involved in reshaping a new kind of government—and you can do it from your kitchen table.
I’m looking forward to learning from leaders at all levels on what government looks like in this new normal, and how to improve access to modern services when they are most needed. To hear about these topics and more, stay tuned for our webinar later this summer.

Bob Nevins is the Director of Health and Human Services (HHS) Strategy and Business Development for Oracle Public Sector. Bob spent over 20 years in a variety of senior leadership roles in Massachusetts state government. He was the Chief Operating Officer (COO) and Chief Information Officer for the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority (“Health Connector”), which was the quasi-governmental entity created pursuant to the landmark Health Care Reform Law in Massachusetts. Bob was scheduled to lead a breakout session at Code for America Summit on delivering healthcare outcomes at scale, but we are now sharing his expertise on how government is pivoting its practices to serve people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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