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Hindsight is 20/20: What state and local government agencies can learn from the challenges of 2020

The coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing economic turmoil made 2020 a difficult year for everyone, including state and local government agencies. Thankfully, glimmers of hope are growing brighter. Vaccines—and a possible return to something resembling normality—are on the horizon, and it’s possible that the worst parts of 2020 might soon become an unpleasant memory in 2021.

It may be a difficult thought exercise now, but many of the challenges of 2020 presented opportunities to learn and improve for the new year. Here are three of the most significant obstacles state and local government agencies faced in 2020, how they were (or could have been) met and how we can avoid getting caught off-guard again.

1. A flood of unemployment insurance claims

Mass layoffs and mandated closings of restaurants, retail stores, and gyms resulted in a deluge of unemployment insurance (UI) claims.

The challenge: Even if fraud is present in a minimal percentage of payments, that percentage becomes less minimal in terms of dollars when the underlying volume swells. The tremendous spike in UI claims meant there was more fraud that needed to be prevented and pursued. Addressing fraud became even more critical as media outlets pounced on instances of waste or misallocation, and private enterprises and government entities alike grew louder in their clamoring for their share of the rapidly dwindling pie of government aid.

The possible remedy: When there is a tremendous increase of payments in a short amount of time, human oversight can’t possibly be sufficient. Automated fraud prevention software can move quickly through volumes of information, pinpoint possible areas of concern, and flag those for human review, thus saving tremendous amounts of time and helping allocate resources to where they’re most effective.

2. An occasionally-invisible disease

The coronavirus, which can be borne by individuals displaying no symptoms, spreads quickly and easily through aerosolized droplets of saliva and mucus. That meant people who didn’t know they were infected were spreading it to other people at social gatherings and while running errands or conducting otherwise day-to-day business.

The challenge: Health offices at all levels tried to get a handle on the spread of the coronavirus by interviewing individuals who were diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and contacting those with whom that person may have come into contact. It didn’t take long for it to become apparent this was an insurmountable task. Some people resisted the perceived intrusion of being interviewed, and if that person had gone to a larger gathering, reaching out to everyone who may be at risk was next to impossible.

The possible remedy: Contact-tracing software can alleviate many of the problems with manual contact-tracing. For example, several states created mobile apps that operated passively in the background and enabled a user’s device to receive notifications if it (and therefore the user) had been present in a location where coronavirus transmission was likely. At a larger scale, similar software could eliminate needless and low-yield legwork and disseminate vital information to people much more quickly.

3. A massive and fast-moving stimulus package

The CARES Act challenged the IRS to send stimulus payments to millions of Americans—and quickly, since the foundations of the national economy were beginning to buckle under great and unexpected stress.

The challenge: In a situation like this, getting money into the hands of people who need it is the first priority, and a close second is making sure that none of it goes where it isn’t supposed to. People disagree as to whether the IRS met the first mandate, but seem to agree it didn’t meet the second. By some accounts, almost $1.4 billion in CARES Act aid was sent to deceased individuals. Waste like that is never acceptable and becomes even more regrettable in situations like the spring of 2020 when government spending seemed to be the answer to everything and there was only so much funding to go around.

The possible remedy: Manpower alone isn’t enough to tackle a problem like fraud in CARES Act funding. Even if a government agency did somehow have thousands of employees it could commit full-time to seek out fraud (and none do), it would still be a tedious and time-consuming task that wouldn’t pay off until it was too late. Software programs that can use automation to tackle large volumes of information and earmark potential areas of concern will save human workers from needlessly reviewing problem-free cases and leave them better able to pursue those where their attention is needed.

Overall, the challenges state and local government agencies faced in 2020 show that while quality control has always been important, they need to turn the dials up in two respects in particular.

First, speed, because just about every area of life has accelerated, and government entities no longer have an excuse to operate at a slower pace. Second, accuracy is becoming more critical, because embarrassing blunders cost more than just reputational harm; they impede trust in an organization, which in turn hampers that organization’s ability to fully function in the future. If they can learn from the challenges of 2020, these essential agencies will serve their communities even better in 2021.

For more state and local government insights, read our annual Government Fraud Waste and Abuse Report.


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