Originally Published in GCN

To say 2020 has been a challenge is a massive understatement. A year that started with optimism in January went off the rails in March, when the global pandemic led to the most significant economic disruption since the Great Depression. Millions of people lost their jobs, and while there has been a recovery, the U.S. unemployment rate is still near 7%.

As we rapidly approach a new year, it’s reasonably safe to say 2021 will not be much easier. All levels of government will continue to face challenges due to COVID-19. Cities, counties and states may once again be forced to close all non-essential businesses and restrict travel for weeks. Health care facilities will likely be swamped with new cases as the outbreak spreads. Businesses both big and small could close permanently or be forced to make significant job cuts.

All governments will continue to feel COVID-related pain. With less economic activity, states and municipalities are seeing a drop in revenues. This decline includes everything from taxes –sales, income, property — and vehicle registration fees, to fewer parking and speeding tickets. As it stands, all 50 states are projecting a drop in revenue for 2021. Simultaneously, expenses are soaring as residents continue to file for unemployment benefits, and the demand for stimulus spending increases. The CARES Act is due to expire at the end of December, and a failure to give additional and adequate aid will make things worse. This budget uncertainty could force some governments to make hard choices to cut jobs, hours or services.

During the pandemic, though, government must still continue to provide services for passports, vehicle registrations and drivers, marriage, hunting and fishing licenses, as well as building permits. Many of these services can be accessed online, through the mail, or over the phone. But there is still a need for brick-and-mortar locations for people who cannot obtain these services otherwise.

In a setting like the Department of Motor Vehicles, which serves hundreds of people a day, having a physically distanced crowd line up in an orderly fashion is difficult, if not impossible. The technology exists to help combat these unsafe groupings and streamline some archaic operations while helping employees deliver quick and efficient service. Agencies can offer smartphone apps that allow citizens to wait in a virtual line from the comfort of their car, home or office – a service consumers now expect. Not only will this solution remove crowds in confined spaces and limit the spread COVID-19, but it will allow employees to focus on providing quality service.

These systems offer many benefits for citizen, including less frustration when dealing with busy agencies. They’ll always know their place in line and how long they have to wait. Another benefit is the deep analytical data that is collected, which can improve service metrics and optimize workflow for employees. Insights from this data could lead to greater efficiencies and help reduce costs.

While nobody can say what 2021 will bring, it is probably safe to predict there will be some pain in the new year. We don’t know when or if there will be new stimulus packages. Legislatures and municipalities will attempt to cover growing budget deficits by tightening their belts. Proactively finding solutions could help alleviate some of the strain. While many will try to pivot to virtual services, it makes sense to invest in technology to make vital in-person visits safer, painless and more efficient.