We can all agree that 2020 was not what we anticipated when the year started. Many plans and priorities were thrown out the window to make room for responding to the pandemic, forcing government agencies across the country to react quickly and implement changes never before seen in government, all while moving employees out of the office to work remotely from the safety of their homes.
With the innovative use of technology, government agencies were determined to find a way to make remote work a success. Some failed while others succeeded, but many are still questioning what 2021 will look like while asking, “What happens when we go back to normal? Will operations remain different?”
While 2020 was all about adapting to changes and unknowns as they surfaced, 2021 is shaping up to provide more time and flexibility to study agencies who worked to get it right so those processes and learnings can be passed on to others as we continue the shift into digital and remote services.
One thing is for sure: Remote work, or at least a hybrid model, is here to stay. As we move into the second year of this “new normal,” we knew it was time to have more conversations about the future of remote work in the public sector as well as ways to effectively manage change. In partnership with Government Technology, we hosted a free lunch and learn event to discuss all of the questions we receive most frequently and, most importantly, allow others in the government industry to ask questions about how they can better manage change moving forward.
William (Bill) Rials, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, Center for Digital Government
Professor and Associate Director of the Tulane University School of Professional Advancement IT and Cybersecurity Program
Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at Clerk of the Superior Court, Maricopa County
National Practice Director, Public Sector Division at DataBank
Many government agencies had to embrace a remote workforce out of necessity due to the pandemic. Now, agencies are trying to figure out how to do things more intentionally and efficiently. Where should agencies get started with planning?
Jason: The past 12 months have gone by quickly, and it has been a tsunami of change. One of the things agencies are doing now is identifying their own unique “new normal,” and a remote workforce is a key piece of that.
At DataBank, we work with many organizations that are moving into what we call “Phase 2” of process planning post-Covid outbreak. These organizations are identifying the processes they have in place today and taking note so there is a baseline to work off of.
A great starting point when it comes to planning is to take a step back and identify the key processes you currently have and mapping them out and documenting them. Think of it as taking inventory of who owns each process, who is most knowledgeable when it comes to each process, and who is most impacted by each process.
By having a solid understanding of where your agency is currently at, you’re then able to work on roadmaps toward standardization of processes, allowing you to identify contingencies from one process to the next and whether or not you have any parent/child relationships among them.
People have been reactionary, and they had no choice but to be. But when you have to quickly make process changes without a framework for how those processes are currently carried out, you could run into serious bottlenecks.
For example, we’ve seen processes that have been broken just because people couldn’t open mail in the mailroom. At face value, this seems like a small issue, but the truth is it can cascade into a whole other slew of issues and bottlenecks. It’s a showstopper. Scenarios like that are important to identify so as you set up processes in support of a more remote workforce, you can standardize and be more nimble with any future changes.
Rich: Having the best understanding of your business and process positions you to act quickly.
For us, we had just completed a strategic planning process where we identified priorities, initiatives, and key projects for delivery that focused on customer experience. So, coincidentally, we were well-positioned to act quickly in response to the pandemic. That said, the time to deliver a solution can often outweigh being a little more thoughtful or detailed in your planning and approach. I equate it to the 2-minute drill you see in football. You apply all the discipline that you’ve developed, you’ve positioned yourself well, and now you have to step up and deliver things quickly and effectively.
Mid-pandemic, we had to respond to an important initiative with the superior court justice of the court. To keep justice moving, they implemented online virtual hearings, critical to the safety of their constituents. To help support those changes, we had to quickly develop a solution to accept electronic exhibits from attorneys or other filing parties. Thankfully with our partnership with DataBank, we were positioned to do that quickly. It only took 32 calendar days from the time of the request to go live. Partnerships and knowledge of your processes to act quickly are critical, even when you’re not in the middle of a pandemic.
There’s another important factor when you consider remote work implementation, or really any technology implementation, which is that there’s always a user tied to the end of that solution. What can you recommend about the impact users have on this when it comes to acceptance and training?
Jason: The last 12 months have proven that a bunch of changes at one time, whether it’s related to projects or technology, compounds quickly. Technology is now viewed as an enabler to support change and change management. Acknowledging that is important from a user perspective as you may have individuals who have spent decades in a typical office setting that are now sitting in a home office. That’s a big change, so establishing quick wins is important to achieve buy-in and acceptance.
Don’t save user training until the end of the process – take them along throughout the process to make it more collaborative. After a project goes live, we like to let it “settle” a bit before going back to that user group (typically 30 or 45 days letter) to get feedback. You don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s important to do this to increase user adoption.
Working with vendors or partners – is there a difference, and does it make sense to engage them?
Rich: It’s critical. We drew a hard line between a vendor and a partner. For, especially due to having technology solutions that are highly impactful to our business, we’re looking for partners to develop solutions with, not vendors.
For example, as the official record-keeper of Maricopa County Clerk of Superior Court, we receive more than 3 million documents each year. Our electronic document system is the heart of our organization, and our ability to do more in terms of enhancing and exercising the capabilities of our system is a function of our partnership which, in this case, is with DataBank.
We can make a real impact on more than 58 stakeholders who interact with our EDMS on any given day just by partnering with those who know best. We’re proud of what we do, we’re an IT group, but we’re also humble enough to realize that to do more and do better we need to leverage and rely on partners with expertise in a particular space. As I mentioned earlier with online exhibits, our ability to do more things at once comes from a reliance on partners that listen well, understand our needs, and work in collaboration with us to achieve a specific outcome. We don’t do technology for the sake of doing technology, we do technology for a business outcome that we need to deliver. Strategic partnerships are everything to us.
The pandemic not only called for governments to rapidly implement a remote workforce but also attributed to an increase in citizen demand for real-time access to services. What are your thoughts on this shift to citizen and employee-centered type solutions?
Jason: We have discussed this in great detail within the state and local government space for a while now. Usability is always top-of-mind so you don’t have people dropping out of a process (like a form being too complex or confusing). The pandemic triggered a switch in citizen engagement where government agencies had to bring their services to the individuals instead of individuals coming to those agencies themselves. This is why you see more things going up like portals, pushing services to handheld devices, etc. Citizens want to be engaged this way now, and agencies have to make changes to keep up.
That said, these changes also create new challenges in the form of staying fresh – content acceleration and access to data snowballs as citizens go to portals and expect new or updated content with every visit. This can put pressure on communications departments and other areas of the agency that may or may not have felt that pressure before.
From an engagement perspective, there is an audience out there that’s 65+ that could feel isolated due to so many changes. While there are tech-savvy individuals in any age group, those 65+ are used to going into agency facilities, which is the experience they’re comfortable with. They may have a smartphone but they also may use it as a cell phone. It’s important to be sensitive to those audiences and the ways they use their devices so you don’t frustrate or lose them.
What kind of strategies are out there to address the impending “silver tsunami” with government employees, especially since those individuals likely have vast institutional knowledge?
Jason: Process standardization is important. If someone with 35 years of experience retires, it’s not likely that someone will be able to step in and know 100% of what that individual knew after so much time in the workforce. But what can be done is the job and responsibilities of that role can be documented and published so it’s known to all.
In the last 12 months, people have been implementing technology by force to get productivity tools out there to their employees. But now that those tools are in place, they can actually be repurposed to attract new employees and set them up for future success. Reflecting on your recently acquired tools can help highlight which ones can be leveraged for other improvements, like bridging the gap between the workforce that’s moving into retirement and the new generation of workers who will need to be recruited for those roles.
Rich: As technologists, our first priority (no surprise to most) isn’t documentation. It’s not always an exciting task for those who want to build solutions, but it’s critical for continuity. We’ve taken a multi-pronged approach to that.
First, we want to entice tech talent by ensuring we’re using the latest and greatest. We’re already on a journey with artificial intelligence and machine learning, so staying up-to-date and pushing the edge on technology ensures we’re ready to recruit the best if needed. Second, we love to promote from within. We actually tagged this initiative the “next wave” as it’s investing in the professional development of our employees and doing it proactively so they’re ready to take the next step up within our agency when the time comes. We also like to give them time within their workweek to innovate and experiment (it’s 10% of their job role). It’s what keeps us relevant, keeps our employees engaged and passionate, and keeps us running smoothly.
How does leadership identify performance improvements to ensure objectives are being met, especially while individuals are working remotely?
Jason: There’s definitely a challenge to monitor and help improve employee performance in a remote work context. In my opinion, it works best when it happens at an individual level as everyone has adjusted to the “new normal” in their own way. I look at tracking performance and employee accountability from individual-to-individual. It’s likely not the best scalable thing at this time, but we’re all still learning what works best, and technology certainly helps with collaboration and transparency of tasks and other role-specific duties.
The personalization of someone’s career path and performance requirements to reach that goal is something newer generations of employees are expecting. At DataBank, this is how we work to keep our employees working toward their own goals and, more importantly, how we keep them engaged and working toward our larger mission.
How do you know what to look for when finding partners?
Rich: First and foremost, a partnership is a two-way street. For us, we look for partners who demonstrate that they’re in the partnership with us, not just there to sell particular solutions or equipment. We find the most success when partners are in the weeds with us while building and implementing solutions that help us do more. I also recommend ensuring the partners you’re vetting have a good reputation and are credible. The public sector is a small world in some respects, so credibility is a big factor.