Beyond the Headlines, Government’s Digital Response to COVID-19

Today you will read the news about Congress’s stimulus package and all the new services and benefits aimed at both keeping people safe from coronavirus and shoring-up our economy. At the practical ground level, consider how much of that package relies upon digital systems and infrastructure to deliver information and administer services to millions of citizens and businesses in need of help. 

The response to this pandemic will require an extraordinary surge in digital development to support everything from a ramp up of telehealth coronavirus testing services (“SEC. 3212. Telehealth network and telehealth grant programs”), digital resources and products to support new tax credits for paid sick and family medical leave, expanded resources and services under Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP and so much more. In addition, the massive surge in applications for unemployment benefits will need to be administered by state governments, many with digital products and infrastructure that are ill-equipped to meet the demand. These state systems received some upgrades following the unemployment surge that followed the subprime mortgage crisis, but unemployment applications are already higher than during any previous crisis. News in the coming days will undoubtedly spotlight failing systems and/or paper processes that have not yet been modernized.

At the Federal level, it is difficult to fully comprehend the expansive effort of government agencies that need to quickly realign processes and adapt their ways of working to support the pandemic response. To provide a thirty thousand foot view, this aggregation page from the General Services Administration (GSA) offers an extensive list of no less than 80 separate agencies who have created digital resources to help citizens and businesses understand new protocols and keep themselves safe. This list will undoubtedly grow.

In addition, many agencies at all levels (Federal, State and Local) primarily conduct on-site inspections, investigations and on-site walk-in services to meet their missions and serve citizens (think OSHA or APHIS). They will need to explore ways to adapt their processes and leverage technology to continue to operate under pandemic restrictions.

The task at hand is enormous. However, public servants know how to innovate in a crisis. Agencies will use all the tools at their disposal to launch new services and adapt processes to meet the challenge. New contracts will need to be let and agencies might look to leverage faster procurement authorities such as OTAs and SIBRs (or STTRs, in partnership with academic or research institutions) to bring in outside resources. Contract officers might look to adapt these authorities so they can be leveraged for digital prototypes, but also for innovative communications projects that will help agencies inform citizens and businesses about available benefits.

Of paramount importance, public servants with technical expertise must lead these initiatives to ensure that the products being developed will be successful and resilient, and above all, secure. In times of crisis, government leaders may want to react as quickly as humanly possible, sometimes relaxing security guardrails and skirting regulations in order to get information and services out to those who need them. Those responsible for these systems face the unenviable responsibility of balancing speed and security: ensuring that information makes it to those that desperately need it, but also protecting against the inevitable ‘bad actors’ looking to capitalize on the situation by compromising systems and spreading mis-information. 

Finally, government agencies with limited resources may look to the U.S. Digital Response initiative, a volunteer group of technologists that are seeking to form alliances with state and local governments and scrub-in on high-impact projects where they can help build digital tools to support the response. Initiatives like this, driven by grassroots volunteers, exemplify our passion and fortitude to come together in times of crisis.

The task at hand is enormous, but collectively we have both the expertise and will to stand-up digital systems to address these challenges and deliver benefits to those who need them.