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INSIGHT: Covid-19 Will Spur Remote Government Civil Services

Sept. 16, 2020, 8:01 AM

In June 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River burst into flames, leading to a groundswell of public pressure for Congress to pass the Environmental Policy Act.

Twenty years later, 700 disability advocates and parents of children with disabilities showed up on Capitol Hill to testify about living in a world where you can’t ride the bus or get into your office building, resulting in the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I was a deputy mayor of New York City the night Hurricane Sandy hit; one of the most destructive storms ever to strike the U.S. Today cities around the country and the world are finally making the climate investments needed to protect families and businesses for the long term.

These watershed moments don’t come often. But when they do, we have to mount a response equal to the crisis. Covid-19 is such a moment and it’s time for government to use technology to give all citizens easy, virtual access to critical government services and necessities.

In-Person Registrations a Thing of the Past

More than six million Americans have tested positive for Covid-19, more than 189,000 have died, yet we see images of reopened DMV branches, long unemployment lines, and thousands of voters waiting together in the heat. No one should have to risk their lives for a car registration sticker, a marriage license, or a construction permit. That’s simply unacceptable.

Just a few years ago, the idea of virtual government services was a novelty. The technology to get people what they need from government virtually was either unavailable or treated as a “nice to have” for places that could afford it. Today it’s an imperative. And the technology to deliver a virtual option is affordable and widely available.

Every benefit, permit, license, and registration that today requires you—or the dedicated public servants who work for all of us—to show up in person, must be accessible virtually from any smartphone, tablet, desktop, or other device. This includes family case-worker visits and similar services that completely stopped for months when the pandemic first hit.

The virtual imperative isn’t just about public health, it’s about getting our economy back up and running—and keeping it that way. How many thousands of government agencies couldn’t keep delivering services when office buildings shut down?

And a virtual option will provide the most benefit to those who have been disproportionately impacted by this crisis: communities of color across the U.S.

Virtual Options Already in Motion

Nor is the virtual option a fantasy. Covid-19 has already forced cities to move in this direction, and there are many bright spots. Some municipalities have set up automated chatbots to text vital information on restrictions and resources to residents—easing the demand on 311 services and getting resources to families faster.

Within days, Washington, D.C., deployed an application that enables families impacted by the virus to get emergency meals, baby formula, information about sick loved ones, and mental health services. New York City quickly developed a platform to put thousands of struggling professional drivers back to work to deliver millions of meals to vulnerable residents that couldn’t leave their homes. The city has also made virtual marriage licenses available to thousands of couples who want to say “I do.”

These local efforts are innovative and inspiring. But to make the virtual option a reality for all Americans, the federal government will have to lead. As with the ADA, the Environmental Policy Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other groundbreaking legislation that is the silver lining of crisis and strife in America, the virtual imperative that Covid-19 has set in motion must become the law of the land.

The federal government can use the incredible work that many cities, states and counties have already done as the basis for legislation that can guarantee access to all of us now, and far into the future.

The technology to deliver a universal virtual option wasn’t available when I was in public service. It’s available now. We should all make sure that government provides it at every level.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Cas Holloway is the head of public enterprise at Unqork, a New York-based no-code software application platform. He previously served as New York City’s deputy mayor for operations.

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