Counties' concern over IT costs dropped during pandemic, survey will reveal

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A survey about on county governments’ IT priorities will show that concerns about the costs of implementing new technologies were largely overlooked during the COVID-19 pandemic, as local officials scrambled to convert their services into virtual offerings and constituents needed digital access to essential services.

Budgets and cost controls, which historically have ranked as county chief information officers’ top priorities, dropped to ninth place over the past year, according to the forthcoming Digital Counties Survey that the Center for Digital Government, an IT think tank, is scheduled to release later this month.

Phil Bertolini
Phil Bertolini

Phil Bertolini, the center’s vice president and former CIO of Oakland County, Michigan, offered a preview of this year’s survey on Thursday for attendees of the National Association of Counties’ annual conference. Cybersecurity, citizen engagement and business process automation topped respondents’ list of priorities, but balance sheets were less of a worry as the health crisis set in, he said.

“The fiscal pressures dropped,” he said. “First, leadership priorities shifted immediately, the value of tech rose dramatically. People needed technology more than they ever had before. The acceptance of digital grew with citizens.”

‘A bit of a pass’

Like other rungs of government, Bertolini said, counties had to act quickly as they coordinated responses to the pandemic, which put county services nationwide on the front lines. Even in the early months of COVID-19, many county executives said they were spending freely on IT needs — often related to remote work and digital services — even as their financial situations turned bleak.

“Technology is an investment we have to make at this time,” Penny Postoak Ferguson, the manager of Johnson County, Kansas, said during a NACo press briefing in May 2020. She said tech investments were a priority “almost as much” as the personal protective equipment — like face masks and hospital gowns — that were in short supply last year.

Bertolini also said Thursday that another effect of COVID-19 on government IT is that expectations have been raised, especially if there’s another emergency that forces massive shifts in services and the ways people live.

“I believe government got a bit of a pass during the pandemic on technology,” he said. “What do you think is going to happen next time? You’re not going to get a pass. Time to deliver on expectations.”

That shift in sentiment is helping drive faster adoptions of cloud computing at the county level, the Digital Counties Survey will show. Bertolini said that cloud, which was the No. 7 priority in 2020, rose to No. 5 this year. Many counties are also trying to improve their data governance and hire more analytics specialists, with 85% of respondents calling data privacy a “primary concern.”

“Data is power,” he said. “Geospatial data has been on your plate for years. You need professionals to do that.”

Hybrid work endorsed

And just as at the state level, where many governments are recognizing that the remote-work polices adopted during the pandemic will not fade entirely, counties are bracing for some permanent changes to their workforces.

“It’s tough to assume everything’s going to go back to the way it was,” Bertolini said. “Policies and processes are important to make sure this work.”

He said some county executives may be hesitant to embrace remote work as a permanent element of their organizations, but that the pandemic showed that work performance is more important than where employees are located while they work.

“What do we care about when they do it, as long as they do it,” he said, recalling his own struggle implementing a remote-work policy for his IT employees in Oakland County in 2013. “I wanted remote work for our staff so bad, and my county executive said, ‘No, I want to see them.’ I told him, ‘They work in a different building, you don’t see them anyway.'”

Bertolini said the county executive was not amused by his retort, but agreed to a telework pilot for about 30 IT workers. Despite being asked to file a report at the six-month mark, Bertolini said he let two years go by as the remote work succeeded.

“I said it’s going so good we can’t change it now,” he recalled saying.

According to the survey, 62% of counties still have more than 30% of their staff members working remotely, while 78% of counties said that they’re capable of letting at least 30% of their workforces go virtual. That, Bertolini told the NACo audience, is an endorsement of a hybrid model.

“It works, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t work for every position,” he said. “You need the dome. You need the place of government. Government should never be 100% virtual. It should be a hybrid.”

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cloud, COVID-19, National Association of Counties (NACo), Phil Bertolini, remote work
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