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The general public often sees local government as slow in adapting to new technologies. That assessment might not hold in all cases; but what remains true is that local governments must embrace a digital transformation to meet the challenges of the future. These challenges range from ever-increasing security concerns to being able to function through a pandemic. So what types of challenges can local governments expect to face and how can technology help? We look at what a new, digital local government might resemble.

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Challenge: Legacy IT Still Plays a Large Role in Local Government

Stories of government agencies still using 50-year-old technology are not uncommon. As of 2018, the IRS still processed taxes on computers dating back to the 1960s. And while you might not see PCs from the early 2000s sitting on the desks of local government employees, stories of workers using desktop systems several years out of date do exist. More concerningly however, evidence of IT departments and infrastructure utilizing outdated and vulnerable systems are confirmed. In 2014, the city of Detroit was hacked and its database held for ransom thanks to a vulnerability in the dated Windows XP machines they used at the time. Since then, hacks and ransomware attacks only increased at all levels of government.

To help mitigate such attacks, the general advice remains the effective. Patch and update fastidiously, secure external emails, ensure infrastructure and apps remain up to date, utilize multi-step authentication, and routinely training employees on best practices for network security. When it comes to keeping hardware up to date, however, it can be difficult for more budget-constrained municipalities. Building and maintaining servers and IT infrastructure may not be in the cards. In such cases, smaller local governments may benefit from managed service partners, who can update legacy systems and maintain servers at a more competitive cost.

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Challenge: Reducing Wait Times and In-Person Transactions

As companies shifted to a remote workforce where possible since the beginning of the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so too have local governments. However, local governments face the unique challenge of needing to be available to the public and offering uninterrupted services. To solve this problem, local government employees can continue to work remotely from home with teleconferencing apps such as Zoom. This allows many previously in-person interactions to be done online. Even courtroom proceedings, schooling, and jury duty can be conducted through teleconferencing. And while hiccups such as participants accidentally leaving cat filters on can occasionally happen, local services remain available and business conducted as usual.

In addition to teleconferencing, local governments should also invest in developing their web app infrastructure. But what does entail? It means a well-built online portal that citizens can use to not online stay informed, but also pay bills, reserve facilities, and register for programs all without having to visit a local office in-person. Web apps can assist in reducing physical contact and enable citizens to complete transactions at their own schedule without inconveniencing them during the day.

For an example of how a local government can create an online portal that gives users a wide range of services, see the website for the County of Los Angeles. From the main page, users can find resources for starting a business, finding employment information, getting permitted for a wide range of projects, and more. For even further interaction, some local governments even offer online chat for live help during normal businesses hours. Gone are the days of visiting the office to ask a simple question or calling in only to be put on hold. As citizens look more and more to working online and doing business online, it is to be expected that they would like the same online presence from their local government.

Challenge: Maintaining Operations While Employees Work Remotely

While the old local government office may have traditionally shied away from allowing their workforce to work remotely, the post-COVID office looks to be more prepared working from home. To help employees remain in communication with each other and collaborative, some local governments now use messaging apps such as Microsoft Teams. And as it comes bundled with Office 365 subscriptions, Teams makes for a cost-effective solution with built-in integrations with other Office applications. So, despite COVID restrictions, a shift in digital technology allows local governments to still function and offer traditional services delivered in innovative ways.

Challenge: Promoting Data Transparency and Accountability

For government to be more transparent and accountable, advocates for open data want non-sensitive government information to be published online to be freely accessible to all. And in 2019, the OPEN Government Data act, which required federal agencies to publish the data online, became US law with bipartisan support. While a mandate only for federal agencies currently, local governments can also create open data portals of their own. The official open data website for the government, Data.gov offers the code for local governments to create their own open data portals. As of 2021, 48 US cities and counties have joined the open data effort and made their information accessible online.

For local government, an open data policy offers many benefits on top of just promoting transparency and accountability. It helps reduce labor costs, particularly when local government employees no longer need to act as human search engines. The public can easily and quickly search for information on open data websites themselves, which can free up government resources. Open data also fosters collaboration between different local government agencies by centralizing previously disparate information sources for all agencies to freely access. For businesses, open data can be used to streamline their own operations and even allow entrepreneurs to identify business opportunities.

Challenge: Engaging the Public and Maintaining Lines of Communication

Social media has supercharged the way local governments engage with their citizenry by allowing them to disseminate information more quickly than ever. It yields benefits on multiple fronts, from crisis communication to combating misinformation. And as COVID-19 shutters public gatherings and events, local governments can turn to social media platforms to update their citizens on the latest directives and policy. In addition to traditional social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, civic leaders can also leverage video platforms like YouTube and Twitch.tv to livestream town halls and conferences. Beyond the pandemic, live streaming may find a permanent place in the toolsets of local governments as they serve to keep their citizens better informed.

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Summary
Wallace Chu

Author Wallace Chu

A self-professed tech hipster that loves computers and music. Uses an iPhone ironically.

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