As governments have been forced to change how they work in the wake of a global pandemic, technology has gone from a luxury to a lifeline. School is now online. Public meetings happen on Zoom. These solutions work, but do not work for everyone and are not happening everywhere. In order to be ready for the next pandemic Massachusetts must invest in digital literacy, broadband, and government digital services.
People that cannot use technology cannot access these lifelines. Pew Research has learned that 10% of job seekers find it challenging to apply for work online. If applying for work online is challenging, how easily can they apply for unemployment or pay their taxes online? Will they be able to use software that is required by new jobs? Young people should have an opportunity to learn these skills in school, and public libraries should provide classes and assistance for adults. Everyone should be comfortable using digital technology and have a place to go for help when they need it.
Another challenge is access. Lower income households have adopted technology at a lower rate than their high income peers. Ten percent of households in the Boston metro region lack Internet access. In some neighborhoods it is more than 20%. The barriers are two-fold: sometimes Internet is not available and sometimes it is not affordable. In cities like Boston the solution can be a public-private partnership with a company like Verizon, but for many places the best solution is for municipalities to provide fiber optic broadband access to the home.
Finally, to be equitable and resilient, government needs to be digital. The Internet makes it less expensive and more efficient to connect vulnerable populations with the services they need. Satisfaction with government services increases trust in local governments. Making services digital is not just about doing things right, but it is the right thing to do.
How do we do it? We need to hire, train, and retain talent that is able to implement this strategy. Groups like Code for America and Code for Boston already are encouraging technologists to go into government. However more government organizations need to hire people with technical literacy for roles. They also need to train their existing workforce so they understand technology. For some roles like analysts this training is going to look like existing software development bootcamps. If you are a manager or lawyer it will involve becoming literate in the concepts around the technology that is relevant to your work. Finally retention means aligning compensation and benefits with the private sector. There is no point in investing in a workforce if they are just going to be scooped up by Google.
Technology is helping us weather our current crises. Massachusetts was more prepared than other states: our unemployment system is already in the cloud and did not crash the way New York’s did. If we want to be prepared for the next crises we just need to invest in ourselves. The legislature and governor should begin appropriating investments in digital literacy, community broadband, and government digital services so we are ready for the next crises.