By John A Russo, founder of Synchronicity Associates
The COVID-19 pandemic has battered almost every municipal government in our nation, as Mayors and City Managers wrestle with a challenge almost no living American has ever experienced. The short-term financial impacts are clear to every local government executive. Sales tax receipts, which have been under pressure for more than 20 years now, have taken a nosedive – which may or may not be temporary — as a result of widespread Stay-At-Home orders. Additionally, many local governments have had to cancel recreation and child-care programs which were a major generator of fee revenue. To cut expenses, many cities chose to lay off or furlough employees who run such programs; however, many others did not on principle, or could not, due to collective bargaining agreements or the local political environment. Expenses for employee testing, personal safety items, and regular disinfecting of municipal buildings, also added to the unforeseen fiscal pressure.
But there are other, long evolving societal trends which have been spotlighted by COVID-19. The acceleration of these changes in how people work, and consequently where people choose to live, is not getting the level of attention from public executives that it merits.
That’s understandable. Most local government executives, who are trying to manage the conflicting demands of a divided populace while struggling to maintain basic services in the face of plummeting tax receipts, have little time or patience for “futurism”. But those overwhelmed leaders must, or they will be planning inadvertently for a “future” that is quickly becoming obsolete. Of these evolving societal trends, the two most impactful for city governments are the widespread shift to telecommuting, and the increased understanding that, at long last, the disgraceful Digital Divide has to be bridged.
Telecommuting had enjoyed some private sector acceptance over the past decade. The pandemic has supercharged this development. Half of Facebook’s workforce is now expected to be telecommuting by 2030. Twitter already permits any employee to work remotely. To the extent that this reflects broader corporate sentiment, it is a stark reversal from the 21st Century attempt to induce professional employees to spend more time at work with amenities like “nap rooms,” gaming areas, beers on tap, wine refrigerators, masseuses and short order cooks on site. Now, many office-based professional businesses are placing office expansion plans on hold or, in many cases, scaling back existing square footage in substantial percentages.
In government, telecommuting has been much rarer. Years of stereotyping of public employees as “lazy bureaucrats,” all of us “grifters at heart,” has commanded a large enough constituency among voters to deter many public executives from even broaching the idea of telecommuting with their governing bodies. However, the COVID-19 crisis has put the lie to this slander. When City Halls from coast to coast were forced to close, department heads and managers were required to work remotely. As a result, public officials learned a lesson that had already been revealed by a two-year Stanford University study published in 2018: telecommuting improves productivity.
Mayors and City Managers need to seize this moment to surmount the longstanding opposition to allowing public employees to telecommute whenever possible. Pre COVID-19, local governments were at a disadvantage when competing for professional talent: generous pensions and benefits had been scaled back for entry level employees, telecommuting and other forms of work/life flexibility were generally disfavored, and government offices were certainly not bursting with modern gymnasiums, free sushi lunches and other creature comforts. Post COVID-19, with telecommuting widely accepted, employees at public agencies and private companies will have the same daily workspace—home. Additionally, with employees facing reduced expenses for commuting, dry cleaning, lunches, etc., the gap between private and public sector paydays will become less meaningful.
There are at least two other major opportunities for cities to reduce expenses based upon societal changes which have been sped up due to the pandemic.
First, cities with growing populations, and therefore growing workforces, can use updated remote work policies to reduce the need for expanded office space, thereby avoiding new construction and future maintenance costs. This has political benefits as well. What City Manager or Mayor, engaged in constructing new municipal offices, hasn’t been beset by complaints from irate residents that the community doesn’t need a “Taj Mahal for bureaucrats?”
Second, the shut-down of City Halls and the Stay-At-Home orders in much of the nation have required many Americans who were otherwise resistant to conducting city business electronically –for example, pulling permits or paying business license taxes—to use their desktops, laptops, and phones rather than stand in line at a government office. In the future, these new adopters are unlikely to go back to long waits while crowded in a harshly lit office to perform basic regulatory transactions. And just as residents will gain the flexibility to handle their city business anytime from anywhere, city employees responsible for these matters can handle them remotely as well. The result, if managed correctly with timing benchmarks, should be more efficient government requiring less office space.
American government, at all levels, has been aware of the “Digital Divide” for more than 20 years, but little has been done. Often, as in bank redlining, those who are deprived of internet access, are left out due to institutional racism; but racism alone does not explain why millions of Americans are stranded on the far shore of technology, without the bridge they need to cross into the modern marketplace and workplace. Huge numbers of Americans do not have access to broadband internet simply because they cannot afford the cost. And vast portions of the nation, mostly rural, lack this basic infrastructure and people living in these areas cannot participate in the new commercial and educational systems we are building even if they could afford it.
Learning tools at all levels from primary school to higher education have already begun migrating to the internet. Shopping, work, access to government services, education, professional continuing education and certification, all of it and more now require that everyone have high speed and reliable internet service. In the 20th Century, universal access to electricity and telephone service weren’t widely accepted at first, but these commodities came to be seen as basic utilities once it became clear that people could not fully participate in American society without them. In the same way, effective internet access is now no longer a trendy luxury but a basic necessity. Local governments that do not address the need for adequate fiber lines and wireless towers will condemn their businesses and residents to poverty and ignorance, with all of the social costs attendant that come with a lack of resources and opportunity.
Municipal executives should view the COVID-19 crisis not as a period in time with a beginning, middle and end; rather, our current struggle with this virus, and the way people and organizations are adapting to it, should be seen as a transformational and catalytic event that will change forever how our businesses and residents work, live, shop, and learn. A failure to account and begin planning now for these fundamental changes will have consequences to individual cities and towns at least as severe as the COVID pandemic itself.