COVID-19 has disrupted just about every aspect of life around the world. We wanted to find out what hurdles would need to be overcome, what policy changes should be considered, and what investments should be made by local governments across the U.S. in order to come out of the pandemic stronger, and better positioned for the future.
GovPilot Director of Marketing & Communications, Evan Achiron recently sat down (virtually) with C. Scott Dempwolf - Assistant Research Professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Director of the UMD – Morgan State Center for Economic Development, to find out.
Professor Dempwolf’s research examines relationships between innovation, manufacturing and economic development in global and regional contexts. Scott practiced community and economic development for over 20 years at the neighborhood, city, county and regional levels prior returning to academia.
Their conversation, edited for clarity, is below.
Evan Achiron: Pre-Pandemic, what would you have said was the biggest challenge generally for local governments in terms of technology adoption? Outside of the obvious health crisis, what will be their biggest challenge moving forward?
Scott Dempwolf: One of the biggest challenges in terms of Smart Cities is that it means different things to different people. A definition is actually very hard to pin down. A thread in my course explores what smart cities are. How are they defined and why? Unfortunately there’s no one definition - and if there’s no agreed upon definition, it’s very difficult to measure.
The US Conference of Mayors conducted a survey on Smart Cities and found that responses were all over the map in terms of definitions, projects, level of sophistication, and capacity for analytics.
The Conference set as one metric, customer/citizen satisfaction - but again it’s very difficult to measure in a standardized way. Increasingly though, citizen ability to access services, and their ease of access to interaction with government through e-government tools, has become a critical component of citizen satisfaction.
I think that's a really important piece of it, and is the obvious place to start for cities of all sizes. There is a lot of potential moving forward for governments to provide services via platforms like GovPilot that would help them achieve their objectives of enhancing citizen service and citizen satisfaction.
EA: Can you elaborate on that? We know local and state budgets are being hit hard by the pandemic, but what steps can leaders take, what investments can they make to come out of this stronger economically?
SD: There are or hopefully soon will be, a lot of funds available at the Federal and State levels but there are different levels of knowledge and sophistication at the local level about how to access and make them available. Many places are dependent on a limited number of industries. Lots of industries like retail and tourism shuttered completely. Others like manufacturing and agriculture kept going for the most part. That means that the economic impacts of the pandemic have been different across the country.
Investing in local governments’ capacity to understand and analyze what is going on at the ground level, and to have modern IT infrastructure, allows leaders to make better decisions, and better utilize limited resources… and everyone has limited resources. That’s a universal truth. Being able to understand that landscape and deploy those limited resources most effectively is, I think critical.
There are a lot of things we won’t be able to do in the short term, but the whole idea of preparedness is critical moving forward. The time to prepare is not after a disaster starts. We need to get through this pandemic as best we can, but then we MUST learn the lessons from it and make necessary changes.
My focus is on the long-term. I take the long view of how you prepare for the next time. We’ve put our democracy to a test. It has revealed the fault lines. We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do, and that’s going to take us a long time.
While this pandemic has forced us to really consider and reflect on those larger societal issues, it has also shown us that doing things virtually - like work, and doctor visits - isn’t as bad as we might have thought. So maybe there’s a better business model for service delivery in places that are remote, underserved, urban, or rural. Where is a physical presence truly necessary? How can we provide quality services at low cost? I’ll be looking at that extensively over the next year.
This of course, has implications for e-governance. Government is always trying to do more with less. How do you extend the staff and resources you have now, in order to deliver more services to more people throughout your city or county?
Once we get through this short term event, where do we as a country go from there? How do we restructure our systems that make us more resilient, adaptable, able to handle the next crisis? And there will be a next crisis no matter what city or country you’re in. Whether a public health crisis, economic crisis, natural disasters or something else - every place will have a next crisis. And we need to prepare for that.
One thing government officials and the public alike can do right now: Pay attention. Learn. Write it down. Remember what we’re going through now, so we can better prepare for the next time.
EA: And broadly speaking - do you have any policy recommendations for the Federal government that would help state and local governments be better prepared?
SD: Broadband availability and citizen access to it has broad implications particularly in an emergency as far as how governments respond. Take schools for example. We see this in Baltimore. There are big chunks of the city that don’t have broadband access. When we think of Broadband we think of rural areas. But there are places in Baltimore and other cities where there are whole neighborhoods without broadband access. That’s problematic when businesses have to go cashless, education has to be online, etc. That cannot happen. It cannot be allowed to continue to be a problem. If a student can’t get internet at their home, that’s hugely problematic if all your schools are online.
So the question then is, is the internet a utility? Is it a necessity? Pretty clearly the answer is yes. If you need it for your kids to keep going to school, it’s a utility.
Changing local, state, and Federal policy to ensure everyone has broadband access is an important priority in my mind.
EA: The public sector lags the private sector in terms of technology (1950’s era COBOL based unemployment systems for example). What changes might need to be made that would help local and state governments close the gap? Should local governments be able to classify IT as critical infrastructure?
SD: With smart investment in IT, local and state governments will be able to save money and figure out where to spend their budgets wisely. With better analytics, prioritization of needs and expenditures is easier. IT is a critical piece of infrastructure, and I think we have seen, and are seeing that in the response to COVID. We have to rely on technology, and we very clearly see where it’s working and where it’s failing.
As I've said, this kind of stress reveals the fault lines, and one of those fault lines is the digital divide - between people and places that have the access to, and have invested in IT, and places that haven’t. IT is absolutely a critical piece of infrastructure.
Once we get through this immediate crisis, longer term recovery will include Federal, state investment in local and state IT upgrades. What this pandemic draws into focus is how critical Information Technology is, and that in our modern world, it is most definitely a piece of infrastructure - especially when people have to interact with their government when physical proximity is either impossible or dangerous.
No one questioned the necessity for IT investment and upgrades post 9/11. There was a big push to modernize, create backups, redundancy, etc. We’re going to see that again.
People are inventive and innovative. They get knocked down and get back up. Not to say there won’t be real devastation out of this. As a people, as a nation, there will be lots of innovation that comes out of this, and we will rethink how we do things in many different ways.
The future of work, how we structure workplaces, organize our cities, respond to crises, and how we prioritize systems, infrastructure, and policy all come to mind.
EA: That said, how then should smaller local governments think about shifting their own priorities, especially as budgets are tightened and remote work/social distancing remains the norm for the foreseeable future?
SD: I don’t necessarily foresee widespread retrenchment but I certainly see people changing the way they do things. My son is a building inspector. They’ve moved all their plan reviews online. There are some parts that he can do online to limit on-site time and the personal interaction that he usually has. They’ve done it now because they had to, and they have discovered some efficiencies in the process. When this pandemic is over and we get back to a “new normal”, we’re going to remember those efficiencies and build them into the new system, and hopefully that will drive price reductions and efficiencies in government services.
We’re not there yet as a society, but there will be a post-pandemic reckoning, or re-assessment where we’ll decide what adaptations we want to keep, and what really worked better before. I think we’ll see widespread changes. There will be some old guard cities that retrench and continue to do things as they’ve always done them. It’s a local choice. That will be the choice they make, but most will look to upgrade, modernize, and seek resilience and efficiency through updated technologies.
Overall I’m very optimistic about how we come out of this. There will be a lot of innovation. Things will be different. There will be a lot more robotics and automation. Whole Industries will be different. There will be quite a bit of innovation and change in the private sector, and there will be some in the public sector as well. In terms of government and academia, I am optimistic that this event we are now going through will cause people, companies, and governments to evaluate their operations, and invest in modernization, and the replacement of legacy systems.
People have had a lot of time to think and to reevaluate - and figure out what they value. I don’t see a dystopian future. I’m very optimistic post pandemic.
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Scott Dempwolf is an Assistant Research Professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Director of the UMD – Morgan State Center for Economic Development.
His research examines relationships between innovation, manufacturing and economic development in global and regional contexts. Scott practiced community and economic development for over 20 years at the neighborhood, city, county and regional levels prior returning to academia. Scott earned his PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at UMD; a Masters in Community and Regional Planning at Temple University; and a Bachelor’s from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Additionally, Dempwolf serves as a consultant and contributor to StatsAmerica - a research project run by the Indiana Business Research Center and sponsored by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to provide actionable data for economic developers for use in site requests, developing metrics, grant writing and strategic planning.