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Positioning IT in Local Government: Lessons Learned from the Great Recession Applied to the Pandemic

Sep 28, 2020, 18:40 PM by Bill Hunter, Director, Communications & IT, Roanoke County (Va.)

For some of us old timers in local government who were around during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the past few months have been kind of a Report Card for us on how much we learned from the budget cuts during the Great Recession and how far we’ve come as we face the budget implications from the current pandemic.

In 2007, information technology in our county (Roanoke County in Virginia) was considered a “utility” and the Director of Management & Budget referred to our annual expense as “feeding the beast.” To be honest, back then our department had lots of fat to trim so we could have dodged lots of bullets with an across-the-board percentage reduction.

But we didn’t. Instead we decided to reexamine how IT was doing business and what our overall role in the organization was. Through this process it was confirmed that IT was offering the organization more than they were asking for but our caveat was the importance of both IT infrastructure and training.

In the 13 years since IT has moved from “utility” to “business partner” in the eyes of both department heads and county administration. This time during the budget cuts county administration looked to IT for advice and guidance to determine which funds could be reduced without long term costly repercussions. Prior to COVID-19 Roanoke County projected a $6 million increase in revenues. Now we are predicting a $5 million decrease from the previous year.

The big picture of local government looks very different when comparing the Great Recession to the current pandemic. The main difference during the pandemic has been massive service reductions in both the Parks & Recreation and Library Services departments, which have led to staff reductions for our part-time employees. The other significant difference is that travel for both training and conferences have been eliminated by necessity.

Telework will be the big winner of the pandemic as long as the stigma of “if I can’t see you, you’re not working” has been removed forever. Unfortunately, for many in supervisory positions, this stigma still exists. Some people still think that employees who work remotely are not as productive as they would be if working in an office environment.

Prepared organizations really came into their own beginning in March 2020 by showing their flexibility in continuing to provide citizen services from remote locations seamlessly. This was made possible by technology departments that had leveraged their assets over the last several years and by identifying mobility opportunities during routine PC refresh.