2020 was something else. As I previously penned for this publication, the pandemic gave us a sense of urgency and accelerated digital transformation in ways we couldn’t have imagined one year ago. Looking back, here are some trends that became linchpins that government IT teams used to lead their organizations through the abyss.
It should come as no surprise that the top IT trend in 2020 was the massive shift to remote work. This herculean effort required deployments of remote connectivity technologies, cloud collaboration, and security services. And while it hasn’t been without challenges, government business continued.
Long-term questions remain, of course. Will productivity remain high? Will employee engagement rise or fall? What impact will being freed from commuting and living close to work have on recruitment and retainment?
But there is another critical unknown: the impact of telework on innovation.
It has long been believed (and generally accepted) that “chance encounters” — employees meeting up who otherwise would not — are a key to innovation. It’s literally built into the modern workplace. And governments have embraced the idea. But it seemingly goes out the window with telework.
As agencies move ahead with telework policies, innovation shouldn’t be an afterthought. The solution is digitally replicating the chaotic but coordinated ingredients that feed collaboration (e.g., energizing brainstorming sessions, whiteboarding, open seating, etc.). There is a real opportunity for vendors to address remote innovation — perhaps we’ll see “digital chance encounters” become a thing?
Digital Community Engagement, Public Meetings
While telework is all about, well, work, virtual public meetings are all about elected officials and the community — the public’s work. Getting more residents engaged in the local political process has always been a laudable goal. The rapid deployment of technology, infrastructure and processes to host virtual public meetings of all flavors and sizes has driven an explosion of engagement by enabling residents to participate from the comfort and convenience of their homes.
Vendors did a commendable job recognizing the market need for virtual public meeting software and pivoting to address it. But as the world starts to reopen, the big decision will be whether to permanently adopt a hybrid virtual/in-person meeting format.
Along with the ongoing challenges of securely and efficiently running these meetings, a world-class hybrid format will require deeper integrations between virtual meeting technology, in-person audio/video equipment, and legislative software. This poses an IT engineering challenge and potential barrier for some agencies that might signal opportunities for vendors.
Public Wi-Fi, Municipal Broadband
The pandemic laid bare the unjust consequences of the opportunity gap manifested through Internet technologies — what we commonly call the “digital divide.” A bright spot in 2020 was the response of so many state and local governments to address this need with public infrastructure. Funding in the CARES Act was a game changer, empowering agencies to move forward with ambitious broadband plans at a breakneck pace. The city of Oakland and the counties of Nevada and San Mateo are exemplars.
But ongoing maintenance can be challenging, especially as agencies struggle with budget shortfalls. Vendors in this space can help by providing affordable managed services that offset the need for IT staff to support these large public broadband systems. And with Wi-Fi 6, CBRS, and 5G right around the corner, we’ll need help figuring it all out.
Cheap plug: I was part of a cross-industry group that authored public Wi-Fi and IoT blueprints intended to guide municipalities through some of these challenges.
2020 wasn’t just about the pandemic. The Western U.S. suffered the most devastating wildfires on record, and social unrest led to widespread and sustained demonstrations throughout the summer. In California, state authorities used an IoT camera network and AI-powered drones to fight the fires, while elsewhere, federal agencies used similar technologies to surveil thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters, raising concerns from privacy and civil rights advocates.
For government technologists, this illustrates a core tension — one that will only increase in the future. How can the public sector realize the benefits of emerging technologies like IoT and AI, including improving public safety and criminal justice outcomes, while mitigating the negative effects? Vendors with an awareness of the ethics of emerging tech are more likely to be successful than those lacking one.
As 2020 ends and 2021 begins, the question on my mind is: What trends are here to stay?