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Virus Shutdown: Time for Digital Government to Prove Itself

Overseeing the digital transformation of one of the most advanced cities on Earth, Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross weighs in on how digital services are meeting the moment, with office buildings closed, Web traffic spiking and applications for relief programs becoming increasingly urgent.

This story is excerpted from a report in Government Technology, Techwire's sister publication, that examined the national response to the need for new digital connections between government and citizens. 

Wherever government offices are shuttered during the pandemic, citizens who need to interact with them, for the most part, will do so by phone, online or not at all.

For some communities, it’s a moment that years of investment in digital services have been building toward. From business licensing and permitting to relief program applications and 311 service requests, the ability of local governments to operate online is suddenly more essential than ever, and at least a few of those governments — as well as companies that serve them — are seeing investments pay off in a historic time of need.

In the city of Los Angeles, Chief Information Officer Ted Ross said, present circumstances have accelerated improvements the city was already making such as work-from-home capabilities, online plan checks and business permitting. He said very few of the city’s services are totally shut down, not least of all because his office has been working for years to make more apps accessible online, and because the city’s 311 call center already had a program in place that let employees take phones home with them.

In a city with about 50,000 employees, Ross said he’s up to about 11,400 registered users on the “Connect to LA City” remote-desktop protocol platform his office set up for staff.

In terms of Web traffic, Ross said he noticed a “substantial” increase in Los Angeles residents using digital services in March, roughly 30 percent, and it seems every week has brought a new issue that drove people to the city’s websites and online services.

“We have been building and digitizing our operation, and then we had to put it on steroids when it came to dealing with the pandemic, but you can really support many thousands of users all accessing at the same time from home,” he said. “We’re glad to see that many of the investments we’ve been making are coming to fruition during a very difficult time of the pandemic and having to keep city operations going.”

Overseeing the digital transformation of one of the most advanced cities on Earth, Ross embraced digital services long ago, but he’s pondering a world in which everyone else has, too. He said governments everywhere are coming to the game-changing realization that most of their services — and staff, for that matter — don’t have to be tied to a physical space. And given the potential effects of mass commuting on people's lives and the environment, maybe they shouldn’t be.

“If there could be a silver lining to this very difficult time, it’s that it’s challenging our preconceived notions of how work has to get done. Only until you direct many thousands of people to telecommute do you realize just how much you can get done through Google Meet, how much you can accomplish when teams come together and separate off, and how little you require face-to-face interactions to get the job done,” he said. “There’s a lot to be said about being social and interacting with people and having embedded teams, but technology has become very progressive. You can accomplish a lot with a distributed workforce, and we’re starting to see that in cities, counties and states.”

In a way, this is getting at one of the oldest promises of digital technology. In a 1974 interview with ABC, futurist and author Arthur C. Clarke predicted a moment in the 21st century when computers would make it possible for people to live in one place and do their business in another: “Any businessman, any executive, could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through a device like this,” he tells a reporter in an old recording, gesturing at a giant machine next to him. “It means we won’t have to be stuck in cities. We’ll be able to live out in the country or wherever we please and still carry on interactions with human beings, as well as with other computers.”

Ross is now anticipating this status quo, with digital service delivery and telework at the crux of it — the intersection between a government that accommodates citizens and one that accommodates staff.

“I think people are going to realize … ‘Why do we have to do things the way we’ve been doing, and why have we tied work to a physical space when there are a lot of tools and capabilities that prevent that from having to happen?’” he said. “Imagine it’s an earthquake or a fire. Something could physically happen to my call center, my building, and I could still run the operation. That’s exactly where we want to be as a city. That’s the resilience we’re looking for.”

Andrew Westrope is a staff writer for Government Technology. Before that, he was a reporter and editor at community newspapers for seven years. He has a Bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.