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Public, Private Sectors Agree: Pandemic’s Tech Momentum Must Continue

Participants in a webinar on “Transforming the Government Experience” offered some key takeaways for those in the tech industry — and those in government who rely on the private sector to help them serve the public.

Los Angeles
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Much has been said and written in the last 18 months about government innovation, using technology to work around COVID-19 restrictions, and ensuring digital equity.

But what the transformation of government comes down to, according to three tech executives who spoke in a webinar Tuesday, are three things: “customer,” “user” and “experience.”

In a breakout session of Tuesday’s Los Angeles Virtual Digital Government Summit, IT leaders from Los Angeles County government, the city of San Diego and the private sector were led through a conversation about “Transforming the Government Experience” by Phil Bertolini, vice president of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire and the summit sponsor, Government Technology.

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Jonathan Behnke, San Diego CIO
Participating were Jonathan Behnke, chief information officer (CIO) for the city of San Diego; Micheal Sylvester, CIO and bureau director for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services; and Dylan Hendricks, an account manager for Adobe.

Bertolini asked each of the three for one word to summarize the focus of government technology in an age of remote work and increased online engagement by citizens.

Sylvester: “Customer.”

Behnke: “User.”

Hendricks: “Experience.”

Sylvester said the rapid adoption of new tech by governments has yielded benefits for those within government as well as those doing business with it.

“It really is a great place to be to create change,” said Sylvester, who’s been his department’s CIO for more than 15 years. He said that as long as the public sector can keep online services available and responsive, that builds trust among the public. And he urged those on both sides of the equation to maintain the momentum that began when most in government shifted to remote work in spring 2020.

“We saw these as opportunities where some of the rigidity of the rules and regulations can be revisited and looked at through technology enablers,” Sylvester said, citing the streamlining of protocols required when citizens do business online with government – and when government staffers are working from home, sometimes on their own devices.

The CIO said he sees tech “integration” as the biggest advance on the horizon – that regardless of whether a person is using a phone, a laptop or a desktop computer, they can get their questions answered and tasks accomplished quickly and efficiently.

Behnke, similarly, said the expansion of online government services has been “a great opportunity overall for IT.” He said San Diego has been eliciting residents’ feedback on city services in biannual surveys for the last several years, with great results.

“Our city website added feedback links across the entire website to solicit regular feedback on services, and our performance analytics department also incorporated feedback into the city’s 311 app, called Get It Done, to provide public input to over 50 city services that are connected to the app. And that feedback’s used to improve our services and also identify public priorities that may not be on our radar.”

Behnke said the pandemic has driven more digital engagement with city government by residents who are using services for the first time.

Bertolini noted that when a government gathers public feedback, there are often “gaps” between officials’ perceptions and the public’s opinion about digital services.

Behnke said the city found one such gap in the availability of Internet. When the COVID-19 restrictions forced libraries and other city facilities to close, many people voiced their need to the city, which responded by providing Wi-Fi availability in parks and other outdoor, publicly accessible areas where none existed before. He said the city also provided Internet hot spots to neighborhoods that lacked online access and loaned laptops, hubs and other hardware to residents.

“We were really able to turn community feedback into tangible services in only a few months,” Behnke said. “It was a game-changer. … That was really impactful.”

And there’s a key role for industry in government transformation, he said.

“Our vendors can also provide helpful feedback from work they’ve done in other cities and counties,” Behnke said. “Most of the time, we have similar problems that can be solved with similar solutions. … Events like the L.A. Digital Government Summit give us great opportunities to hear about the innovation with our regional neighbors, and that might make a great solution in our own jurisdictions.”

Hendricks said his company, Adobe, has a business unit called Transforming the Customer Experience, and over the past dozen years or so, the firm – perhaps best-known for such products as Photoshop and PDFs – has focused on expanding its government business. To that end, he said, the company has been getting more deeply into web content management and digital analytics, including for government.

Bertolini asked Hendricks what governments can do to improve their citizens’ user experience.

“It comes down to prioritization and understanding what areas of the business they need to transform first,” he said. “Is it their public-facing services, or is it internal services? It could be something as simple as a form – a static PDF … turning it from just a static PDF into an adaptive form. … It could be something internal like work management.”

Hendricks said that in his five years with Adobe, he often wondered, “Why isn’t public sector talking about customer experience? That is front and center. … There’s a massive opportunity for the public sector to … talk to these technology vendors about how they can meet their constituents where they’re at.”

“Personalized experience,” Hendricks said, is among the newest public expectations he’s seen – how government can be available to all, regardless of platform or language or technological expertise.

And for those working in government, he said, the success of that endeavor hinges on one thing: “Their willingness to adapt to change.”
Dennis Noone is Managing Editor of Techwire. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in the Northern California foothills.