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Commentary: The Pandemic Gave Us a Sense of Urgency – Can We Keep It?

Government IT, with industry's help, delivered big in adapting to the first round of changes under COVID. But digital transformation is a marathon. Those who can maintain urgency will succeed in the future. Those who don’t sustain it will fade away.

Monday, March 16, 2020, is a day I will never forget. That was the day the county of Alameda issued its first shelter-in-place order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we huddled in an emergency Executive Team meeting, trying to understand the impacts on the city of San Leandro’s businesses, residents and our municipal organization, I was mostly thinking about the massive implication for IT. Literally overnight, we needed to shift everyone to telecommuting.

To do this, we needed to develop onboarding procedures, how-to guides, communication plans and cybersecurity guidelines, and deploy technology citywide, just to name a few things. And as we zoomed around that mid-March week, improvising to solve whatever new issue cropped up, I recognized a familiar sensation, like an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. We were moving with a sense of urgency. And it paid off. We onboarded 50 percent of our full-time staff – our entire telework force – in less than four days.

My team was not unique. IT departments across the state sprang into action, making significant changes in an ultra-compressed timeframe. Along with deploying teleworking services, we figured out how to host virtual council meetings (and not only maintained but, in some cases, dramatically increased public engagement); made headway on digital inclusion efforts (which became even more pronounced during the shutdown); and evangelized and drove the adoption of cloud collaboration services – all while working together at all levels of government to protect, defend and respond to an increase in cyberattacks.

Vendors played a key role, as well, discounting critical services and offering expedited support and expertise when agencies needed it most. Smart gov tech vendors saw it as an opportunity to sincerely help agencies get through an incredibly difficult period (please, keep this up). It seemed like the walls of institutional inertia, built up over years, instantly toppled.

It’s vital to understand that the reason we made so much progress so quickly is because of urgency.

In his appropriately titled book, A Sense of Urgency, scholar John P. Kotter writes that urgency is an “underlying determination to move and win, now.” Urgency is about acting quickly, but not frenetically. In firefighting mode, you chop away like a wild axman, only to look up and see a never-ending forest in front of you. You feel hopeless – you can never win – and that leads to burnout. Kotter calls this a “false sense of urgency.”

But now that our virtual meetings have settled back into their familiar, pre-pandemic cadence and teleworking no longer feels novel, we can easily slip back into the opposite of urgency: complacency. In fact, ironically, the more successful you are, the more likely you are to become complacent and lose what made you successful in the first place.

So, the most pressing question for government technology executives is: How do we maintain this sense of urgency and use it to drive digital transformation and generational change? There is no one answer, but here are a few things public sector CXOs and executives can do:

  • Urgency is about leadership. Communicate with logic and emotion to ensure your teams and stakeholders are highly engaged. Kotter calls this a “head-plus-heart strategy.”
  • Ask for structural and funding changes. Now, more than ever, IT needs the proverbial “seat at the table” and to be properly structured as an internal engine of innovation. Showing senior administrators and elected officials both the urgency of now and the consequences of failing to act, can help secure the funding and organizational influence you need to be successful.
  • Partner with motivated colleagues. Identify those business partners who want digital signatures, process automation, online payments, forms, and more. Don’t squander these opportunities; even small, incremental wins create progress.
  • Pilot emerging tech. Now could be a good time to take a risk on chatbots, data analytics (artificial intelligence/machine learning), and Internet of Things.
  • Streamline procurement. Time is of the essence. Get that Master Services Agreement approved for repeat vendors and/or piggyback on other competitively bid projects.
  • Explore managed services. As government budgets tighten and we feel the full impact of the economic downturn, outsourcing may be necessary. Seek out trusted vendors and partners. Cybersecurity expertise is often a good place to start.
The pandemic has given us a sense of urgency, and we delivered big in the first round. But digital transformation is a marathon. Those who can maintain urgency will succeed in the future. Those who don’t sustain it will fade away.

Tony Batalla is the Chief Technology Officer for the city of San Leandro, overseeing the Innovation Office and Information Technology Division. He has worked in IT since 2007, first in the private sector as a systems administrator, systems engineer and IT manager, and since 2014 for the city. He was promoted to the newly created CTO position in April 2019.