Five lessons for digital government transformation learnt from the COVID-19 crisis!

In just a few months the Novel Coronavirus has changed the way the whole world operates and has also impacted governments, and we are likely to feel and see the reverberations of this to continue to challenge the way organizations operate for a long after this crisis is behind us.


However, amid this growing concern of how the pandemic is and will impact people, organizations and economies etc. digital has played an instrumental role in keeping the wheels of the economy turning as demand for digital services increased due to social distancing. For instance, although China’s GDP contracted by 6.8% in first quarter of 2020, its Information Transmission, Software and Information Technology Services increased by 13.2% during the same time . On an average the overall service sector which is highly digitized at around 33%, recorded a contraction of 5.2% compared to the industry sector which declined by 9.6% .


I have been a strong proponent of governments using digital for improving quality of life of their citizens and the current situation has only strengthened my conviction. I believe digital is no longer something “GOOD to have” but a “MUST have” for a modern government. I have already expressed my thoughts that governments should be taking a holistic approach to digital transformation and should be looking to re-imagine government operating model for the digital era, and the need of the hour is to accelerate digital transformation across.

Whilst undertaking digital transformation here are my five observations from the COVID 19 crises that I believe governments should keep in mind.


1. Better information sharing

Integrated flow of information and data across different government entities at different levels of governance is critical. This not only helps set accountabilities, it also allows organizations and teams to act fast.


I remember, one of our colleagues had returned from France to her home country just before international travels were suspended. She shared her experience of being screened at the airport upon landing. However, it wasn’t until 18 days before police approached her apartment building to collect travel data.


It was another week before representatives from the health department came to check on her based on travel data provided by her housing society to local authorities. Neither police and representatives from the health department were aware of her travel history beforehand nor there was any communication between police and health department or authority that conducted the initial screening at the airport. Thankfully my colleague was not infected!


While it can be argued that governments were not ready to handle a situation like this and the current systems were overwhelmed – leading to this delay in data collection, it does highlight need of a robust analytical and AI system that allows rapid data processing and information sharing among government bodies. In this specific situation, the screening data and her travel history should have alerted local authorities on the same day of her arrival for further follow up and any other precautionary measures if necessary.


2. Addressing privacy concerns

One of the biggest challenges in implementing a robust information sharing system is the data privacy concern around it. Who controls and uses information, and in what way has led to political and legal issues around the world? Without addressing this elephant in the room, it is unlikely that governments will be able to capitalize on the full potential of data. For instance, in India, the government has introduced a COVID-2019 contact tracing app “Aarogya Setu” which informs users based on their location . However, privacy concerns have been raised against Aarogya Setu and similar apps like this being developed by countries around the globe.


Governments maintain that these apps are privacy-first by design. However, if people believe it’s a way for governments to increase their surveillance, this could lead to mistrust and low morale of the people – rendering effectiveness of these apps limited.


A clear data privacy law and transparent practices which are followed by increasing awareness can help alleviate the concern. Also, it will also help if the solutions are co-created.


3. Bringing digital equity

Lockdowns around the world have highlighted the importance of digital in keeping people connected and organizations functional and as such allowing a great deal of people to remain employed. It emphasizes further why we need digital equity. Access to digital tools and services and ability to use them effectively needs to become a basic right rather than a privilege.


This requires a two-pronged approach. First, focus on digital literacy and second scaling the digital infrastructure to improve affordable access to internet for masses.

Global leaders in digital government practices have already included digital inclusion in their best practices but it needs to become a strategic priority. On the infrastructure side, governments can relook at their policies surrounding 5G to expediate the use and its rollout. Policies and practices of sharing communication infrastructure and unbundling of licenses will also help small players to enter the market and expand services to new customers. Moreover, I see the need for communities to play a big role in ensuring digital reaches everyone.


4. Ensuring reliable, secure and scalable digital public services

With digital services being the only way to access services in many parts of the world amid the pandemic, I cannot stress enough on the importance of reliable, secure and scalable digital public services. Governments need to ensure that people can fully complete their transactions online with minimal effort and in their first attempt. This requires coordinated effort of a multidisciplinary team and redesign of public services in many cases.


Furthermore, it’s the duty of a government to secure these services to protect the integrity of data transacted. This is especially important given the recent increase in cyberattacks. According to the 2019 Data Breach Investigations Report by Verizon , cyberattacks supported by nations accounted for 23% of reported data breaches in 2019 compared with 12% in 2018. You don’t want your services to fail during emergencies, which will only add to the chaos and confusion in the society during such crises.


Lastly embracing cloud computing is an important enabling component for a digital government and better user experience, while also being more cost-effective. On one hand it provides more flexibility, scalable, agility, access to tools, applications, capabilities etc. on the other had it enables better cross-agency collaboration between government agencies. Government and public cloud will allow government agencies to handle spikes in the use of digital channels, which otherwise could potentially lead to denial of services due to overload on servers.


5. Digital era ready workforce

COVID19 has highlighted that we are truly living in the digital era, and therefore the workforce in government needs to be one that has the capabilities and skill set to effectively operate in the online space.


A digital workforce can help your organization perform its daily operation to a large extent. I use the term “to a large extent” deliberately because naturally some work and outputs of a service need to be physical for practicality purposes.


Many organizations, including mine have extensively used digital tools to operate during the lockdown regardless of where our people are located. I do not see any reason why this cannot be true for public agencies, which in some cases they have.


Moreover, when social distancing is expected from everyone, why deprive health and frontline workers trying to manage the situation from it? A digitally adept workforce equipped with right tools can avoid physical contact with potential patients unless deemed necessary.


Let’s consider the example of my colleague above. The health department representatives visited her twice in a period of around 14-15 days to check if she had any symptoms. This whole exercise could have been completed through a secure video consultation – saving the representatives a great deal of time, and without putting them at risk of contracting the virus. I have heard about the use cases of video checks on people from my friends in some of the digitally advanced small nation states. Governments around the world should explore such practices of digital engagements of citizens to their advantage.

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