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Image of employee working during covid-19 times.

The following article written by Evan Davis was published in Federal Computer Week on July 12.

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted all walks of life, and few things changed more than how people interact with their governments on a federal, state, and local level.

From the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the number of government interactions skyrocketed. This was driven by direct impacts of the pandemic, such as testing, contact tracing, and vaccine distribution, as well as indirect impacts, including unemployment benefits and relief payments; more than 40 million people nationwide filed for unemployment at some point during the pandemic.

To add a layer of difficulty with keeping pace with this new demand, agencies and contractors have had to adapt to their own new normal of social distancing and remote work. This was especially challenging for those programs, such as contact centers, that were never designed to be operated remotely, forcing agencies and contractors to get creative and innovative while implementing new technologies and strategies during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we hit the hopeful end of the pandemic in 2021, we can look at lessons learned and recognize that the need for that creativity from the public and private sector alike will be critical moving forward; surge needs aren’t going anywhere, and many obstacles remain.

The need to respond accordingly

The need for surge capability is not new. Government and private sector partners have always encountered situations that required the quick and efficient addition of staff and resources to meet drastically increased service demand.

For the general public, this is most prominently revealed in the wake of natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes, where agencies like FEMA spring into action quickly to meet an acute, increased demand.

However, COVID-19 provided a different type of surge need for the government not only because of its duration, but it and the accompanying government response has impacted nearly every agency. Since 2020, we have seen an explosion in government interactions across every level of government, an explosion that continues today. More importantly, this need is not going to quickly dissipate even if life returns to normal. The new normal for governments is the constant increase in consumer interactions.

Technologies alleviate the demand

COVID-19 has forced agencies at every level to look at self-service technology for citizens, including online portals, virtual agents, and automation. Similarly, many employees will remain remote through 2021, if not longer, adding even more complexity to the response. While the pandemic forced the government and its partners to get innovative, the technologies and strategies implemented during COVID-19 can provide long-term benefits to agencies.

One example came from the U.S. Census Bureau, which had to conduct its constitutional mission during unprecedented contact restrictions. They had to rapidly get creative about leveraging existing technologies to empower remote workers in order to keep everyone safe, all of which needed to be scaled up to meet the demand of the task.

Another example came from the IRS, which saw its taxpayer services requests explode due to the extended tax filing deadline and two rounds of relief payments to most Americans. This Herculean task would have been impossible without using a natural language and AI-powered intelligent assistant to answer many taxpayer requests without human interaction. It was a huge force multiplier to the number of queries IRS staff could handle to assist the millions upon millions of taxpayers who needed help.

The government has had to reinvent how it thought about customer service and how it implemented technologies to complete its critical missions and programs. As we slowly emerge from the darkest depths of the pandemic, agencies would be well-served to keep pushing innovation and creativity forward as demand for services will likely remain high for years to come.