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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs
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To help modernize how state and local governments (SLGs) deliver citizen services, SLGs must leverage community-based tech talent to help improve digital services initiatives, Jessica Cole, chief operating officer at U.S. Digital Response (USDR), explained during the State of GovTech 2021 digital conference.

USDR, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps governments respond quickly and efficiently to support the critical needs of the public, was founded in March of 2020 and was intended to help SLGs deliver services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cole explained that since its founding USDR, which relies on both volunteers and paid staff, has partnered with more than 230 government and nonprofit partners on more than 300 projects.

“People deserve high-quality services from their government … and in order to get that delivery right, we have to get that technology right,” Cole said. One key aspect of USDR’s mission is included in the volunteer oath that everyone signs, which states “We will work within the tech constraints our partner has.” What this means, Cole explained, is that the USDR team operates as vendor-agnostic and non-partisan.

Relating to her time in the government sector, Cole said that when she was faced with needing to expand services or handle a crisis, she knew that she wanted to be able to build and deliver a new technology capability but lacked the resources in-house to do it.

“It is not usual to very quickly have a dedicated set of expertise or a dedicate team that you can put on something new as it arises,” she said. Cole said this feeling is ubiquitous across SLGs. As a result, USDR operates on a pro-bono basis because it allows SLGs to ask for help more quickly since they don’t have to figure out the budget side of things, which in turn allows USDR to stand up a team in a matter of days, she added.

Since the start of the pandemic, USDR has worked with states on meeting new health needs, including standing up testing centers, ensuring equity during vaccine disruption, and helping SLGs audit their testing and vaccination programs. Due to the economic recession, states were faced with a massive spike in unemployment filings which overwhelmed existing systems. USDR has partnered with states to build out capabilities.

Cole added that her team is also working with SLGs to navigate Federal funding packages, including the American Rescue Plan, that can help SLGs afford needed technology modernization initiatives. She said the goal is to make sure SLGs “make it from overall policy vision to successful on the ground receipt of services by everyone in their community who needs it.”

Looking to a post-pandemic world, Cole said that a key role community-based tech organizations can play is “spreading what’s working.” Right now, if a government team comes up with a great solution, there isn’t an easy way to spread that knowledge to governments in other counties or states.

“The core advantage is that we get to collaborate instead of compete,” Cole said. “We should have connective tissue organizations” that can help share out what has worked well and help other SLGs adapt the solution to meet their needs, Cole explained.

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