The COVID-19 pandemic forced unprecedented changes in the way most legislatures operated during 2020 and 2021, and technology was an integral part of those changes in many states.
Legislatures, like businesses and other organizations, had to adapt to a newly remote workplace and perpetual video calls and meetings. But legislatures had the added challenges of doing so while upholding legislative traditions, rules and procedures or constitutional requirements that required special approaches.
To explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on legislative IT offices, NCSL sent key legislative IT contacts (CIOs, IT directors or managers, referred to hereafter as key contacts) an online survey in August 2021. The survey focused on how legislative IT offices approached and adapted to the challenges and demands presented by the pandemic and to what extent the changes experienced in the past two years will continue.
Thirty-nine IT staff in 35 states responded. Thirty of the key contacts who responded were from states where there is a single, central IT office that supports the entire legislature. Other respondents provide IT services to a single chamber or legislative office.
Impact of the Pandemic on Use of Technology
The survey posed questions covering the following three areas related to the impact of the pandemic on legislatures: 1) awareness of technology in the legislature; 2) new applications used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and 3) predictions about the use of new or advanced technologies in the legislature over the next five years.
Awareness of IT
Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed that the pandemic had increased legislators' awareness of the significance of technology in the legislative process. Some said the pandemic had highlighted the value of IT in the legislative environment and the capabilities of IT staff in responding and acting quickly to keep legislatures functioning. Others said that it had bolstered support from legislative staff managers or legislative leadership for more institutional continuity and disaster recovery planning.
Ninety-five percent of respondents surveyed agreed that the pandemic accelerated changes in the use of technology in the legislature. In the new, often remote environment, 95% said they had used, purchased or developed videoconferencing capabilities. About two-thirds said they used or implemented new web-based applications to take the place of paper; some said they had gone almost entirely paperless. Close to half used or implemented electronic bill filing or co-sponsorship applications.
In addition, an NCSL review of legislative websites found that many legislatures developed new applications for remote participation—web apps that allow the public to request to register to testify or to submit committee testimony electronically.
The pandemic also created the need for remote voting applications in some states, a rarity prior to the pandemic. Key contacts reported that remote voting was used during 2020 or 2021 in 13 senate chambers and in 20 house/assembly chambers. (Note that additional legislatures may have used remote voting at various times in legislatures during those years.) Remote committee voting applications were in place in a few states prepandemic, but such applications were implemented in five state senate committees and six house or assembly committees in response to the pandemic, according to the survey.
New or Advanced Technologies
When asked about new technologies that might be used in the legislature in the next one to five years, 44% of the key contacts said they expect biometric technologies (such as facial recognition or fingerprint ID to unlock devices) to be used within that time. Twenty-nine percent expect to see artificial intelligence technologies used, for example, to improve security or to streamline legislative processes. Twenty-four percent expect that connected (IoT) devices will be used for purposes such as controlling or monitoring building temperature, air quality or security. A few respondents commented that they already have these technologies in place, for example, in commercial security software that uses AI (for automated fraud detection), in building monitoring software or in chat bots.
Impact of the Pandemic on Legislative IT Offices
Legislative IT key contacts also responded to questions about effects on IT staffing and operations, IT priorities and remote work.
Legislative IT offices faced challenges in staffing and operations in 2020 and 2021. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said their workload had increased, 64% said additional training for IT staff was required, and 51% had to hire additional staff to meet new tasks and responsibilities. The pandemic also required new software and hardware purchases for 87% and 85% of respondents, respectively. Of the key contacts who said they hired new full-time staff, such as help desk, IT support staff or A/V technicians, about half said they would be permanent hires.
Impact on Priorities
Some of the biggest challenges for IT key contacts during the pandemic related to the need for additional security measures, such as more training and implementing tools like multifactor authentication. Close to half of those responding said that COVID-19 had a very significant impact on their priorities, for example, by delaying projects and shifting to new ones necessitated by the pandemic, and half saw a significant need for additional security measures.
Only two key contacts said that IT employees were allowed to work remotely prior to the pandemic (although others said that it was allowed for certain positions, such as programmers, or in limited or special circumstances only). During the pandemic, however, 76% of those responding said remote work was allowed for all IT employees. Only about 42%, however, felt that remote work will definitely or likely be allowed for IT staff in the future. Of those who said remote work might be allowed, most indicated it would be limited to one to three days a week; very few predicted that it would be allowed more than that, even during the interim.
Seventy-one percent of those responding felt that these remote work policies, however, will make a difference in their ability to hire and retain IT staff. As one respondent noted, "Our biggest challenge is the increased competition for staff now that remote work is so widely offered across the U.S. and world. Retention strategy and recruitment is a high priority for us with this new challenge."