This article was originally published in American City & County.
As the world slows down in an effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still many sectors that are forced to remain operational. One, that has become increasingly important as the pandemic spreads, is local government. Public services are essential to help citizens access funds, health services, and information. And, as record numbers of Americans apply for assistance, access to government services has become increasingly important as they try to access these services and information.
Governments around the world have been forced to adopt new technology quickly to promote social distancing and COVID-19 education, while also helping foster a sense of community. As technology continues to enable everyday tasks during the pandemic, governments may need to reconsider how they can improve their customer experiences.
Government agencies have long been criticized for long customer wait-times and outdated systems. While other industries turn to technology to solve this problem, local governments still rely heavily on people to power their call centers and offices. The technology that they do implement tends to be older and slow to scale. During the pandemic, unemployment offices were hit hard as non-essential businesses closed down, and with an economic downturn forecasted, this is expected to continue for quite some time. Health centers have also seen a spike in traffic, both in-person and online.
This has created an obvious need to manage government resources better, and to prepare proactively for crises. Growing demand has caused some services’ online portals to crash, resulting in access being assigned based on the resident’s birthday or last name. Call center queues are also reportedly taking days to navigate, with employees inundated with questions about the virus and public health services. Although existing methods fundamentally work, simple technological and related workflow changes could improve the customer service experience. Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) or other technology can help to create virtual call centers, freeing up the wait time for telephone services. AI can also be used to power virtual chat systems, which can quickly answer questions and refer citizens to the correct services.
There are also services that must still be done in-person, such as vehicle registration or construction permit application. Moving these services online or via phone is likely to be an impossible task, resulting in offices needing to stay open during the crisis. With physical distancing orders in place, government offices have been forced to become creative to manage physical distancing for lines-ups. Non-technology solutions such as pre-measured lines on the floor have been implemented in many businesses. Others have adopted line management systems to allow for customers to wait in their cars or at home for in-person appointments. This software offers increased safety during the pandemic, and can continue to be beneficial post-pandemic by helping to manage customer expectations and create a positive customer experience.
Finally, the sheer volume of telehealth resource usage has proven that these options should be more readily available. Physical distancing is temporary, but the benefits to telehealth extend beyond the crisis. People with mobility issues, those who are immunocompromised, or those who are in remote locations can always benefit from telehealth experiences to improve their access to doctors, counsellors and other healthcare providers.
Data privacy concerns
Before COVID-19, facial recognition was being villainized for inhibiting citizens’ privacy. Now, smart cities have managed to use social surveillance methods to track and slow the spread of the virus. Technology, sensors and data have been combined to track the movement history of infected people, to see who they may have had contact with. Surveillance and cell phone tower data have also been used to track movements of citizens and ensure physical distancing is being followed. Although areas that are using this data claim that it’s a temporary measure, it brings attention to the need for updated legislature.
Smart cities, technology and the data that they collect from individuals is not going away any time soon. In fact, as more technology infiltrates the government, there is likely to be more data collected. This data will be extremely sensitive, yet privacy and data breach concerns are still new to governments. Legislation around the use of sensitive data, gathered during the pandemic or in other times, needs to be created to protect citizens. Also, stronger security features should be implemented to protect people from data breaches.
Dissemination of information
With rules surrounding physical distancing and work orders changing rapidly, many governments have turned to technology to get information out quickly to the public. Social media advertising has been implemented to target younger citizens who may not tune into news broadcasts. WhatsApp has also been implemented by the government looking to connect with citizens, due to its secure encryption services. Messaging services can be used to send out information or to answer questions from concerned individuals. When the pandemic is over, issues will not disappear immediately. Keeping these services running can help engage citizens on their concerns. Technology also allows for two-way conversations between the public and government agencies, which can help people feel engaged with their government officials.
There is no doubt that this pandemic has changed the way we work and interact. Technology, already ubiquitous, has proven to be essential for maintaining essential services while keeping citizens safe. Once the pandemic is over, will people want to go back to “normal” or will they begin expecting more from their government? Finding long-term strategies for technology that have proven successful during this stressful time may help governments finally enter the 21st century—and may just help engage residents more than ever.
Interested in learning how QLess can help your government agency maintain safe operating practices while delivering a superior customer experience? Schedule a demo.