How Government Agencies Can Adjust and Digitize Faster in the COVID-19 Era

A conversation on how government organizations at the federal, state, and local levels are approaching digitization during COVID-19 — what’s working vs. not working, lessons learned, and how to prioritize steps to cut costs and save time while achieving organizational resiliency. In this Q&A, Bill Donellan, Vice President of Adobe Public Sector is interviewed by Jonathan Benett, Technical Director for Adobe Digital Government Solutions.

Adobe Digital Government Symposium

by Jonathan Benett

posted on 05-20-2020

If you’re at a government agency looking to adapt faster in light of today’s unpredictable environment, you’re not alone.

The questions can feel overwhelming:

There are always complex problems in government that require more details and layers of security. Fraud, waste, abuse are only a few examples of advancing issues that must be considered when updating legacy systems.

In a Q&A conversation with Adobe’s Vice President of the Public Sector, Bill Donellan, and Jonathan Benett, Technical Director for Adobe Digital Government Solutions — they discuss best practices and success stories from customers who have digitally transformed processes prior to and/or during the COVID-19 era, and what steps agencies can prioritize first to modernize in a safe, smart, and effective way.

This content is a preview of the 11th annual Adobe Digital Government Symposium (ADGS) — where the best and brightest minds across the public and private sector will share best practices to rapidly and digitally transform in the new COVID-19 era.

It’s been a few months since the COVID-19 pandemic started. What are key changes in federal, state and local government you’ve seen so far?

First, the focus has of course been on becoming more ‘ready’ in a work-from-home environment. This is across the board at federal, state, and local levels — as well as the private sector. There’s been a lot of discussion around making things mobile-friendly to make sure people have the tools they need to interact with documents digitally and securely. As it’s the leadership’s responsibility to make sure everyone is empowered to do their jobs, and to do it well — the initial stage has been, “How do we keep workflow and process going with as little interruption as possible?”

Second, everyone’s looking deeper into their systems, because frankly they need to. What systems do we optimize first — and how? How can we ensure our website can handle a flood of user volume we never anticipated, without breaking? This can represent a significant amount of work in the backend to build a new foundation that’s strong, secure, and scalable.

What are some common patterns of challenges?

Volume has been the top challenge, first and foremost. No government agency expected this surge of activity.

For example, one of the systems at the SBA that I’m familiar with, was accustomed to delivering benefits to 2 million organizations per year. Now? It was being asked to handle 2 million per day. That’s an incredible increase. It was unpredictable, and the system just wasn’t designed or equipped to handle this historic level of requests all at one time.

How are government agencies responding to the surge of new volume?

Many agencies are moving to the cloud, as the first step. And the agencies who moved to a cloud infrastructure and had secure access from a remote location before COVID-19 hit are adjusting quicker — primarily because they had the elasticity, they needed to handle unexpected surges of volume.

What do you mean by ‘elasticity’?

Good question. To help compare and contrast the options, I’ll give two scenarios (one with elasticity and one without):

Let’s say I’m a government agency and I need to expand my capacity.

First scenario: I buy network access, network gear, server storage, basic hardware componentry, and I need to run it through a procurement process. Then I need to install it to make sure it’s ready for a production environment. This takes months and months. On top of that, it’s very heavy in personnel costs. This gives me additional capacity (to handle volume), but once I don’t need that volume anymore, I’m still paying for it. It’s like paying for rent in an empty office space.

Second scenario: I move my application into the cloud. It’s already designed to do all the things I explained above. But it’s also built so it can scale up as demand increases, and then scale down so that I’m paying only for the capacity I need at that time. It’s flexible and works when volume can unexpectedly shift due to external factors we can’t control.

Which would you choose? Scenario #2 is a better business model, period. It gives you elasticity in your business and equips you to handle surges of new volume. Which is why there’s so much activity now in moving things to the cloud.

So most agencies who haven’t already moved to the cloud, are moving now. What else are they doing?

One of the things we’re seeing at Adobe that’s having a tremendous impact is the adoption of electronic signatures.

It’s actually a technology that’s very easy to deploy and add to existing processes. So, the wave of government agencies that have adopted e-signatures in the last month has been incredible.

Overall, the attempt here is to make things fully digital so that a work process can continue without human intervention. While many workers took home laptops, some of them had to take their desktop computers. And what they didn’t take home with them (like the printers and fax machines), they had to figure out how to digitally enable that capability from home. It’s about offering whatever is determined necessary for each mission.

How long will it take for some government agencies to catch up digitally to meet the demand? And are funds a concern?

In terms of funds, The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act offers support and a straight-forward process for those agencies who need to upgrade their technology quickly in response to the pandemic. There are specific guidelines associated with that funding so the States will use with care and be empowered to make faster improvements.

Full scale digital modernization takes years, but through this process, acceleration is possible. Many technology companies have come forward with “shovel-ready” projects: what can be done right now to make something available to employees in weeks. Simpler things like adding digital signatures, moving to a cloud environment, making a website HTML5 mobile friendly or 21st Century compliant (so that a workflow can be completed from multiple user devices).

There are creative ways multiple technology vendors are offering to accelerate the digital transformation process.

What tips do you have for government agencies feeling torn when comparing different services?

Great question. I’d say, it’s time to go to industry leaders. For agencies to act quickly, it’s best they turn to their existing contracts with large technology vendors so there are streamlined procurement processes.

Another reason to go with small and fast shovel-ready projects is that many government procurement rules have been relaxed. This is to help speed through smaller procurements that have a quick impact on things.

So these are the steps at a high level:

  1. Go with technology leaders and/or organizations your agency has existing contracts with.
  2. Partner with contracting officers to make sure that you’re taking advantage of where procurement rules have been relaxed in terms of dollar thresholds so that things can happen quickly.
  3. After that, ensure administrators learn the technology, have a platform to get workers up to speed, and to lean on managed services should they need it to keep things running smoothly.
What do you think is the next big thing that our industry should prepare for?

I believe there are several things we’ll see. One is that all workers — not just government workers — will show they’re capable of working efficiently in a distributed environment (with the right retooling of course).

Second, I believe we’ll see a huge emphasis on people. We’re seeing it firsthand at Adobe now. We’ve come far in learning how to collaborate remotely. We’re good at it when we need to be. But like many companies out there, we’re used to flying people to a building, sitting in a conference room with whiteboards, and getting stuff done in person. We’ve had to learn to adapt and not operate that way during this crisis. We’ve had to manage schedules more efficiently; and help and encourage our employees to take care of themselves mentally and physically, to come up with new routines, and to take care of their families through these very challenging times.

The most important thing is that our people are happy, healthy, and productive in their professional life. Technology is great to focus on and it will do amazing things to help solve problems — but at the end of the day, we’re serving people. It’s about our workers, our customers, and the citizens we serve. I think we’ll see that shift in focus of people more and more across both sectors going forward. It can’t be overlooked.

Crises also bring a unique opportunity of learning and change. When we’ve been in other times of crises, there have been muscles we flexed in response. And our country’s done extraordinarily well.

Now if you look at the current COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a clear technology challenge. And many people — myself included — consider the United States to be a global leader in technology. So our government should be a shining star as an example around the globe for how technology can help us overcome these times of crisis. We have an opportunity to come out better than we were.

Adobe’s Annual Digital Government Symposium is coming up on May 21st. What will be covered?

We’ll go deeper on these topics.

We’ll talk about building resilience in organizations, best practices in public and private sectors where they’re facing similar challenges around COVID-19, mastering the work-from-home environment, and how to communicate to the right people at the right time as a government agency during a time of crisis.

The CIO of the Federal Government who’s a champion of digitization will also speak on where the government is right now and where it needs to go.

Adobe Digital Government Symposium is coming up

Join us live on Thursday, May 21, 2020

11:00am ET | 8:00am PT

Even in these difficult and uncertain times, your agency can create incredible digital experiences. The right action at the right time is more important than ever — from best practices in technology and communication to constituents. All of that’s covered and more to leave feeling empowered.

Register free to get access.

Industry leaders will discuss:

Speakers include:

See the full list of speakers and events.

Don’t forget to join us in our digital networking lounge! (you can win prizes from our partners)

Register free today.

Topics: Government, COVID-19, Digital strategy for government

Products: Experience Platform