Part 2: Local governments shudder at coronavirus potential job losses

Listen to the first part of this interview here.

If the Great Recession of 2008-2009 when millions of local public sector workers lost their jobs is any indication, the pandemic’s impact on this sector in 2020 will be staggering.

The latest national figures estimate the last two-month total to be around 36.5 million unemployed and the Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell this week warned that the unemployment rate could soar to 25%, a number not seen since the 1930s.

While Powell did go on to say the recovery should be far more rapid than during the Great Depression, the near term effects on state and local employment will be devastating.

We discussed the developments with Alan Shark, the long-time executive director of the Public Technology Institute (PTI) in Washington, D.C., which is the premier technology organization created by and for cities and counties, actively supporting local government executives and elected officials through research, education, executive-level consulting services. It also hosts national recognition programs.

20%-35% staff, spending cuts predicted

“Well, I kind of hear two questions. One is what will be the overall impact and what will be the priorities. I’m one like you who survived the 2008 recession. And we can learn a lot by that in terms of what was cut, we lost thousands, in fact, I would say millions of public workers across the United States,” Shark said. He added that was mild compared to now. “In this case, we’re hearing from many people that there may be overall cutbacks of anywhere from 20% to 35%. And that’s going to come at the cost of both people as well as other kinds of capital spending and other things.”

Shark admitted this development will put a real crimp on things for years to come.

“And there’s a second question in all of this, which is how long is this really going to last? In other words, what will the new normal look like?” he said. Local government perhaps won’t need as much real estate anymore. “I’m not sure we need as many offices as we thought we needed. This is where we’re demonstrating that we can do a heck of a job working remotely. And that’s never been proven before.”

Telework has traditionally, at least in government, been viewed with somewhat of a jaundiced eye. Are people really working? Are they really?

“So I think it’s proving that wow, people are actually stepping up. They’re working longer hours. I know, I am,” Shark said. He also predicted that along with the significant cutbacks in staff, unfortunately, there will be reductions in travel, training, and virtually ever sector of local government including IT. There should be little appetite for major technology efforts in light of layoffs at schools.

Mobility and cloud rising while desktop’s time is over

“On the other hand, I think the priorities are going to be anything to do with public safety, which is always is the case. And then I think anything geared towards a mobile environment, because  the idea of a desktop is over,” Shark said.

People are focused on mobility. They’re thinking smaller. Managers are going to be thinking that their staff can get by with maybe an iPad pro, Chromebook or the equivalent.

“So I think we’re going to be thinking very differently in terms of what are the tools that our public workers really need to be productive? How do we best support that?” he said. “And we may be able to do that because of the advancements, including security of the cloud.”

Speaking of the cloud, Shark said it was fortuitous that its popularity and acceptance comes during this pandemic.

“The cloud came at a good time, because the cloud can be anywhere. Our access is easier. We can probably save an awful lot of money rather than the duplication of everybody having their own network,” Shark said.

In the same vein, he warned that smaller cities and counties will be hit particularly hard because they can barely keep up with the duties, services and responsibilities they have now.

“All the obligations of regulations, HIPAA, privacy, and all the security threats being laid upon them, they’re going to have the biggest issues. They’re going to have to move to the cloud, they’re going to have to accept shared services. It’s going to be more important than ever,” he said.

PTI and NASCIO pilots for local governments?

Shark hopes that by working with Doug Robinson, executive director at the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO), they can cooperate on pilot projects that could really jump start this move along.

Many of the smaller cities and townships in New England are a great example.

“I mean, no one would build a state or organize it as they are today, because they were organized in the 1700s. Now, many of these little communities are being operated as much as a homeowners associations as local government,” said Shark. They really need to have the same infrastructure duplicated. “They’re all these small hamlet localities. There needs to be governance and there needs to be elected leaders, but do they need to have separate little mainframes here and there that they can barely protect, and support?”

So there’s change a-comin.

“And what we saw in 2008 is going to happen now on steroids. And that is, when you have a scarcity of resources, you have unbelievable innovation,” Shark said. “And remember, innovation isn’t always solved by technology. But it is all about how do we do things differently, and better. Technology is going to play a big role for sure.”

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Host John Thomas Flynn is former California and Massachusetts chief information officer and former president of the National Association of State CIOs. The show features conversations with state and local CIOs, CISOs, program leadership and elected officials, and the IT vendor community. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Podcast One.

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