By Shane McRann Bigelow, Ownum

Abridged version originally posted on GCN.com

These days, it seems, everyone has a prediction about what life will look like in a post-quarantine world. In the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught Americans a lot, and there can be no doubt there are further learnings yet to come. Two things we have learned in my busy household: we are so grateful for all that can be done online, and so aware of that which remains stubbornly anchored in the physical world, dependent on personal interactions. 

As it turns out, many of the routine tasks we used to carry out in person were ripe for migration into the digital realm – grocery shopping is one example to which many can relate. The rapid growth of virtual doctor visits is another remarkable adaptation during our troubled times. Some of these changes may become habits borne of heightened convenience, long after COVID-19’s stay-at-home policies are lifted. 

However, there are many tasks that can still only be completed in-person. Many examples involve personal administrative work – tasks that rely on paper, pen, and another person present. Examples that spring to mind are those where we may need to visit a government department or another local authority: a visit to the DMV, a passport application, a home purchase, the execution of a will. 

Of course, it is precisely these sensitive, even crucial, administrative tasks that have been most disrupted by the pandemic as offices have been closed, employees sent home, and no secure digital alternative exists. 

To elaborate on just one of these examples, in nearly all of the United States you cannot complete a driving license application, ID application, or car retitling online today, nor is it possible to designate someone to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles on your behalf. A car trip cannot be replaced by a video-call transaction with a DMV representative. If a driver needs to register their newly purchased car with the local DMV, there is simply no alternative to travelling to the DMV, waiting in line, presenting ID, and signing on the dotted line. In the current moment, it is clear to see how such a visit unnecessarily risks public health and safety. It is worth noting that since the DMV is responsible for issuing IDs, as well as licenses, many who travel on public transit to reach these local DMV offices are disproportionately affected by not being able to acquire these standard government services.  Unfortunately, the poorest in our communities or the ones most negatively effected in these circumstances. 

In time, we hope that the public health and safety concerns which occupy us today will fade. However, in the interim, it is reasonable to assume that Americans will have become increasingly accustomed to shopping, communicating, and conducting their business online, securely and efficiently. In the wake of COVID-19, society will have become even more expectant of paperless, online, secure, and always-open services. In short, we will expect all services – both private and governmental – to be responsive to our needs as customers, taxpayers, and citizens. 

How can we be so certain which changes taking place today will persist in the future? Will we not simply revert to the prior status quo in many aspects of life? Of all the predictions offered these days, those with the greatest likelihood of materializing fall into two categories. Firstly, those trends which were already underway before the pandemic and which have only been accelerated during it. Secondly, those trends which are being propelled by strong financial incentives.  

For example, it is reasonable to imagine that working remotely will continue to be a feature of professional life long after COVID-19, because it promises real estate savings for employers and saves commuting costs, both in terms of time and money, for employees. These are strong financial incentives. Moreover, we know that many employees have long wanted to work remotely for lifestyle reasons. In other words, this trend was already well underway and has simply accelerated, particularly in light of recent announcements from major technology sector employers. 

I propose that the digitization of administrative processes and transactions, such as those carried out at the DMV today, is another candidate for permanent change. Digitization has swept through innumerable industries and is a trend set to accelerate. With clear financial incentives in place for taxpayers, consumers, government, and private enterprise, we should all welcome this evolution. 

We are pleased to report that numerous state governments, agencies, and businesses are collaborating in an effort to embrace the digitization of critical records and paper processes currently responsible for much cost, time, and inconvenience. Perhaps one day before long, your car title will no longer be filed away in a safety deposit box, or worse yet, exist as a crumpled piece of paper in your glove compartment, but will instead be a secure online record – always available to you, and always current, without a trip to the DMV. 

As we tackle the issue of the day, perhaps digitization of vital records can even help securely and safely reopen the American economy. The more day-to-day business can be executed instantly, securely, and without long-lines, signatures, copy machines, mail, and face-to-face interactions, the more resilient our economy will be.  

The good news is that investment in new ways of recording, storing, and sharing data is set to accelerate due to the stress on legacy systems during these uncertain times, and the growing awareness of the opportunity within reach. As interested citizens, we should demand from government the service level we have come to expect from our best service providers during these difficult times. As a technology and business community, we must continue to develop and implement secure, scalable, and efficient information systems that can win the trust of both government and private enterprise.  

The prize is clear, and within reach: a world where taxing but vital offline processes are finally migrated into the digital world, unlocking vast efficiencies and benefits both predictable and unforeseeable.