State and local governments in the United States have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape public service delivery, overhaul infrastructure, modernize technology and accomplish other longstanding goals. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and, most recently, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 have torn down one of the most common barriers to progress: funding. This trio of spending bills directs hundreds of billions of dollars to state, local and tribal governments.

States already have a significant amount waiting to be budgeted and spent, with billions more poised to flood the coffers. It might seem like a great “problem” to have, but planning for, executing and reporting on spending of this scale represents a significant challenge. States need mechanisms for balancing volume and opportunity with the important role of thoughtful management and control when spending public money.

In other words, they need to move at speed and skill while standing up guard rails to maintain public trust in how they’re spending the money.

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Many states are still working to build plans and procure goods and services using the first wave of CARES Act funding. With the additional funding waves ahead, states may lack the capacity to take on a program of this size and complexity. And yet, unless they are completely satisfied with the state of their infrastructure and service delivery, they can’t afford not to.

In reality, most states have many gaps they’d like to fill, strategic opportunities they’d like to pursue. This is the time to lean into existing visions and plans — those lengthy wish lists that span infrastructure, health and human services, and transportation — to identify the best areas for investment.

Which services need overhauling to deliver greater value to residents? Which technology systems are most in need of modernization or replacement? Which digital tools could be gamechangers in terms of outcomes achieved? Where can these federal dollars work the hardest on behalf of people and communities in the state? And, what are the opportunities to build on success and momentum from COVID response efforts?

States need to address these questions with a sense of urgency and purpose. States that make the most of this opportunity — that is, using this funding to drive long-term, structural improvements and increase resilience—will lay the groundwork for stronger growth and a brighter future.

In considering the situation, the old proverb, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” comes to mind. Thanks to these back-to-back bills, state and local governments now have a way. It will take will — and talent from inside and outside government — to execute fully on these opportunities.

Ryan Oakes

Senior Managing Director – Strategy & Consulting, Global Public Service