For the Public Sector, the Pandemic Brought New, Better Ways to Communicate
By Brenda Duran
For those of us in the public sector, the pandemic era of the past two and a half years has been a journey into unchartered territory. Much of the navigating has involved technology. Public services that had been available in-person suddenly were reinvented for the internet. Communicators had to pivot quickly.
Soon after the COVID-19 emergency was declared, innovations in public sector technology that ordinarily would have taken years to develop and implement were expected to happen overnight.
What did we learn from the experience? A lot, it turns out. Here are four things the pandemic taught us about technology:
It’s possible to govern remotely
In 2020, teleconferencing, virtual meetings and remote media-briefings became the norm for government agencies. The goal was to continue providing public access to vital services as the world shut down.
Providing those services virtually was no easy feat, but we found that digital tools gave us a rare opportunity to skip the bureaucracy and aim straight for innovative solutions that would better serve the public. Most of those technologies are still with us today, allowing public-sector professionals to create better, more efficient government services that are accessible to more people than ever before.
The transition to remote work — which forced a mass rollout of laptop computers and software needed to connect and collaborate, such as Outlook, Zoom and Microsoft Teams — also had a positive effect. For many of us, it was the first time we used these technologies to work off-site. Doing so gave people an opportunity to expand their skills in the workplace and helped companies foster collaboration.
The learning curve was steep, but everyone adopted the virtual-only setting. Over time, the public also embraced these new ways to access public-sector services. The silver lining to the pandemic and the changes it brought was that we were able to boost participation by offering broader access online to public meetings, virtual events and discussions.
In some cases, virtual public-sector meetings allowed communicators to expand their reach by letting members of the public leave comments over the telephone. By making it easier for the public to connect with us, we've helped more people participate and to feel greater confidence in their local governments.
The pandemic also made social media more important as a way to update the public. For public-sector communicators, social media presents new opportunities to be creative with infographics, video and photography.
During the pandemic, technology has given us continuity of government. By embracing the challenges and tools at our disposal, we found it was not only possible to govern remotely, but that we could thrive and grow from the experience, as well.
Technology must be user-friendly
Along with using new tech tools to offer public-sector services, government agencies could also conduct informal surveys of which technologies worked and which did not. In a virtual setting, feedback is instantaneous. We could see clearly which tools were best for collaboration, team-building and public outreach.
By posting information online, we made it easier for people to find and access the services they need. Forms that used to be picked up in-person could now be downloaded over the internet. Frequently asked questions that once clogged telephone lines could now be answered by online chat bots. We also posted real-time updates on social media. Such technologies make future government communications easier for people.
Countless new communications tools were born doing the pandemic, giving us fresh ways to disseminate information the public needs.
Internal communication is crucial
One lesson organizations learned during the pandemic was that internal communication became even more important than external communication. Communicating with internal stakeholders whose normal workflows were being disrupted was key.
We learned to communicate and collaborate with internal audiences through Microsoft Teams and Zoom, technologies that also taught us new ways to make our online presentations more engaging. Through virtual meetings, people could practice their public-speaking skills without being intimidated by large, in-person audiences.
Because in-person time with executives also decreased, we had to adopt virtual tools to communicate monthly updates to employees. Some organizations used video messages, while others provided email updates. Either way, internal-communications teams got creative about the best ways to share important information with internal stakeholders — lessons that will serve us well for years to come and make us better prepared for future emergencies.
Evolving technology requires us to be adaptable
As communicators during the pandemic, we learned that technology will continue to play a central role in everything we do. And because technology never stops evolving, we must remain nimble. The Pew Research Center found that 93% of internet users now look for information or completed a transaction on a government website in the last 12 months. We will need to continue developing user-friendly technologies that people can use to access public-sector services.
Being thrust into new ways of operating during the pandemic seemed daunting at first, but it has proven to be one of the best disruptions the public sector has ever experienced.
By staying adaptable, we can reimagine a more connected, accessible, transparent and innovative government that is ready for whatever the future may bring.