On September 10, 2020, the Rockefeller Institute of Government hosted a webinar with senior leaders from state and local government who reflected on the management challenges and opportunities that arose during the response to—and ongoing recovery from—the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The goal of the conversation was to understand how the public sector rapidly adopted new policies and adapted operations to meet new demands, particularly in support of a workforce that was able to work remotely to deliver essential services to constituents virtually. Based on their experiences over the past six months, panelists informed the audience of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers about dramatic changes to the public sector landscape—changes that may be features of the “new normal” for months and years to come.
This post explores some of the key themes that the panelists shared about how government was, and can continue to be, reimagined to ensure accessibility and continuity of services, as well as to attract and retain a workforce that makes government work for the people. The panelists discussed the “nuts and bolts” of how specific agencies devised new management approaches, leveraged remote work options, deployed public health and safety precautions for essential in-person work, and identified ways to improve resiliency and ensure continuity of their operations. These lessons are an invaluable resource to state and local governments throughout the United States as they continue to confront the challenges of COVID-19 and face a potential resurgence of viral transmission within their communities.
Panelists (in order of presentation):
- Dan McCoy, Albany County Executive
- Barbara Guinn, Executive Deputy Commissioner at NYS Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance
- Jeremy Goldberg, Interim Chief Information Officer (CIO) at NYS Office of Information Technology Services
- Madhuri Kommareddi, Director of Workforce Development at Office of NYS Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Response: Governments faced three immediate challenges at the onset of the crisis: keeping employees safe and transitioning to a remote environment, meeting increased public need for services, and mobilizing resources to create new public health capacities.
Employee Safety and Transition to Remote Work
For the last six months in New York, the virus has impacted every aspect of daily life from the ways in which we work and learn to the ways we socialize, play, and travel. The public sector was on the “front line” for this societal upheaval, continuing to function amid crisis. Panelist Albany County Executive Dan McCoy shared how he worked with the leadership of the county government agencies to quickly evaluate which public services were vital to conduct in-person. Ultimately, his team concluded that it was important to strike the right balance to protect employees and residents from COVID-19 by providing remote access to certain programs while maintaining an essential, in-person workforce to ensure that critical duties were fulfilled (e.g., home visits for child protective services).
The shift to remote services, however, required an array of new information technology (IT) systems and solutions to support a virtual environment that constituents could access and where employees could work. For example, the Albany County Department of Mental Health switched their client visits to telemedicine and the Department of Probation moved to an online training platform, all of which required “around-the-clock” support from the County’s Division of Information Services.
Increased Public Need for Services
At the same time that offices and agencies were transitioning to a more remote workforce, panelist Barbara Guinn from the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) described how governments faced an unprecedented “surge” in the need for services from the public, particularly economic assistance and benefits from constituents who lost their jobs. Commissioner Guinn referred to these two concurrent challenges as a “double whammy.”
Certain needs, such as food insecurity, were anticipated given the sweeping disruption to the economy. Commissioner Guinn shared that applications for the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), which provides benefits to supplement the food budget for families in need, rose from roughly 2,000 to over 6,000 a day in March 2020. This extraordinary level of need has been met by the distribution of over $1.5 billion in additional nutritional benefits by OTDA, all of this implanted as the OTDA employees transitioned into a remote workforce.
Mobilizing Resources to Create New Public Health Capacities
Other needs were, however, completely new territory. County Executive McCoy discussed, for example, how the county had to build the public health capacities necessary to confront the pandemic. Specifically, the County’s Department of Health had to provide employees with tools and training on diagnostic testing, contact tracing, and case management to test, track, and contain the rate of COVID-19 spread within the community.
Recovery: As the emergency response shifted toward a broader recovery, governments continued to innovate, using talent, tools, and technologies to increase employee engagement and productivity, virtualize access to services and programs, and develop informal communities and partnerships of practice.
The pandemic placed federal, state, and local governments under enormous pressure, revealing not only the complexity, but also the interconnectedness of our systems of government. Panelist Jeremy Goldberg from the New York State Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) spoke about how “the changes we are making now will mean better digital government, crisis or not.” By focusing on flexibility and speed, ITS deployed solutions throughout state agencies and authorities that have been able to further transition over time as the emergency response moved into a recovery phase.
First, existing technologies were deployed and scaled in real time to support a more mobile workforce on two fronts. The first were the nonessential employees who were working from home to reduce density in the workplace. ITS employees benefited from having long-standing familiarity and expertise in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and multifactor authentication (MFA) and were able to quickly provide state employees with a secure remote environment to work. ITS also needed to provide support for the emergency response operations in the field (e.g., testing sites) deployed to directly address the public health crisis. And, second, built-in agility, particularly in “low-code” website development and micro-services (e.g., surveys), made it easier for state government agencies, such as the New York State Department of Health (DOH) and Empire State Development (ESD), to provide timely, accurate information to the public on the current health metrics and necessary precautions for individuals, families, and businesses.
Likewise, to enlist and leverage the state workforce to support emerging needs and capabilities, panelist Madhuri Kommareddi, who serves as director of workforce development for New York State, described how state agencies “pooled” employees with certain skills and knowledge, and made them available to assist with numerous multiagency efforts. These interagency networks were invaluable in launching the state’s medical professionals portal, which connected thousands of health care professionals from a variety of disciplines across the country with hospitals and other health care providers in New York that required additional personnel to handle the influx of patients at the height of the emergency.
These partnerships extended well beyond the public and health care sector. CIO Goldberg described building dedicated, pro bono public-private partnerships through the state’s COVID-19 Technology SWAT Team with global technology companies. These partnerships generated roughly 25,000 hours of donated time to help accelerate and complete 40 priority projects that aided in the state’s emergency response. By investing in talented professionals, technologies that transfer across agencies, and communities of practice, Commissioner Guinn conveyed that state government remained “nimble and creative” in the face of evolving and competing priorities.
Resiliency: To “build back better,” an effective and efficient public sector must continue to be flexible, sustain change, and build comprehensive relationships with constituents, other governments, and the private sector.
County Executive McCoy observed that government matters now more than ever, and that residents are more informed about public services and programs. This visibility brings opportunity. Indeed, each panelist commented that the pandemic quickly revealed a range of new problems that needed to be solved as quickly as possible—from moving employees to remote work environments to mobilizing resources in response to demand “spikes” to developing more agile IT systems. The swift and concerted actions of hundreds of thousands of public sector employees to overcome challenges demonstrated the ways in which government can help and serve New Yorkers.
Against the backdrop of significant unemployment and lagging consumer confidence, state and local governments will be faced with having to “do more with less” for the foreseeable future, but the lessons of public sector management during COVID-19—flexibility within the workforce, adaptability in tools and technologies, and robust communication with internal and external stakeholders—can continue to pay dividends. Government can “build back better” using the people, policies, programs, and partnerships that are already at their disposal or within reach.
This webinar was a first-look at the critical task that lies ahead for public sector managers to understand the changed landscape of the public sector in the aftermath of COVID-19. The Rockefeller Institute will continue to follow developments in the field and bring lessons learned to government practitioners, researchers, and the public as the work of government is reimagined.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Popcun is director of policy and practice at the Rockefeller Institute of Government