During the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009, thousands of public sector agencies in the U.S. shed well over a million public servants. Budget cuts were based mostly on what sounded fair: Across-the-board reductions of an equal, fixed percentage for all departments, with the possible exception of public safety. This thinking was far from new and has been used countless times during other economic downturns. The theory is that all departments and agencies must share equally in the pain.
Across-the-board cuts is a convenient way for public managers to achieve financial imperatives by coming up with a “magic” number or percent to be reduced and leave it to department heads to figure what has to be cut. After all, they are closest to the centers of activities.
Today, as the novel COVID-19 pandemic endures with little end on the horizon, local governments are already seeing their revenue shrink from nearly all categories. Most local governments are projecting very painful budget cuts ahead. In fact, most would agree that the impending financial crisis makes the former Great Recession quite tame when compared to what many believe are the fiscal challenges that lie ahead.
One way or another budget cuts translate into staff cuts. Of course, public managers have many other options to consider, such as delaying capital projects, postponing infrastructure enhancements, elimination or the curtailing of over-time, a ban on travel, freezing of staff training, and reducing fringe benefits and even retirement contributions.
We know the cuts in local government spending will be severe. We also know that this time around, across-the-board cuts will not work. Elected leaders, city and county managers, and budget directors must now be more strategic. Indeed, they should step back and take a look at the future of local government and reinvent the way it carries out the business of government. They will find that whatever plans they embrace – technology will emerge front and center. COVID-19 has already taught us many valuable lessons.
The pandemic has shown a powerful light on the vital role that technology plays in the delivery of government services. In a remarkably short period of time, local government pivoted to a near all-remote workforce, to the development of the digital town hall, and to the implementation of a wide array of contactless digital government services.
None of this would have been possible without the leadership of our local government IT executives and the hard work of their IT professional staff. Almost overnight they made it possible for hundreds of thousands of public workers to be able to work from home remotely. Local government IT had to implement new remote systems and connectivity, to identify increased broadband solutions, to find the equipment that would support telework, and at the same time develop additional safeguards to protect local government systems from cyberattacks.Technology leadership and support has never been more fully recognized and appreciated. It is said that major crises create major innovations – and countless examples can be found in every size of local government. While no entity can escape the realities of revenue reductions and budget cuts, local government IT departments must be recognized as essential. We have learned that the next crisis or pandemic can appear from almost nowhere, and technology will continue to be the glue that ties together local government agencies as we navigate to a new digital world of government operations. Based on the lessons learned over the past several months, technology support and operations have been identified by most leaders as a vital part of a local government’s ability to deliver public services, and must be treated as such and made immune from random percentage or across-the-board budget