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Digital transformation was on the public sector's radar well before COVID-19. Now, it is a near necessity. Governments and government agencies across Canada have accelerated tech-enabled transformations to stand-up critical pandemic support programs, enhance departmental operations, and manage their virtual workforces.

Like many countries, Canada has accelerated the adoption of a "digital first" mindset across the public sector in response to COVID-19. For one, the Federal government hit fast-forward on its plans to embrace public cloud capabilities, taken further steps toward embedding Software as a Service (SaaS) programs throughout its departments, and launched advanced digital platforms to facilitate nationwide support programs (e.g., CERB). Elsewhere, we've seen the launch of data-sharing portals to unite provincial sectors (e.g., Ontario Together) and innovative partnerships that have led to the creation of resources (e.g., contact tracing apps) that keep Canadians safe and supported.

Indeed, evidence of tech-enabled transformations in the public sector span throughout Canada. The province of Nova Scotia, for example, has committed to connecting virtually all of its citizens and businesses over the next 12 months in a bid to increase telehealth and other government services where citizens reside. Meanwhile, British Columbia's Chief Digital Officer Jaimie Boyd is leading the charge on a new digital framework and tech-enabled initiatives that will provide more connected services (BC Services Card), wield cross-government data to drive stronger decision-making (Data Innovation Program), and take digital procurement initiatives like its home-grown Sprint With Us initiative to the next level1.

Certainly, discussions about "when" Canada will be fully connected have transitioned to concrete strategies regarding the funding, timelines, and the rollout of digital-first mindsets across all levels of the public sector.

Supporting a virtual workforce

The sudden transition to remote working has been an impetus for change. Within weeks, governments were challenged to transition thousands of public sector employees into remote working arrangements, a task that demanded digital infrastructure upgrades, the fast adoption of team platforms, and an elevated focus on cyber security.

The shift to remote working has also led to increased bandwidth demands, and this is expected to provide impetus to the delivery of 5G infrastructure. 5G is not just the next step in the evolution of mobility; it is a revolutionary leap forward because of its faster connections, ultra-low latency, and low energy consumption. Governments have a significant role in encouraging the deployment of 5G, in terms of both policy and regulation. Those who move early are likely to reap major economic benefits.

While there will likely be public sector employees who return to the office, governments will benefit from preparing themselves for permanent flexible working arrangements. This means strengthening and securing the digital infrastructure required to manage hybrid teams and -- perhaps more importantly -- adapting the leadership and change management skills necessary to ensure everyone makes a smooth transition.

(Re)Setting the stage

Digitization in the post-pandemic new reality will likely require governments to support and enable economies struggling to deal with physically distant commerce, accelerated online commerce, as well as the move to a cashless society.

Similarly, Canada's public sector should use this time to review its entire regulatory framework in preparation for a post-pandemic new reality. That means taking a critical look at how and to what extent artificial intelligence (AI), automation, cloud-computing, and other digital technologies are changing public sector operations, and using those same tools to understand and predict their long-term impacts.

Virtual speedbumps

The digital imperative is clear, and it's informing all aspects of government operations from service delivery, organizational design, workforce management, and public communications. That's not to say the journey is over, or that it is without its obstacles. Silos remain between governmental jurisdictions and individual departments, while legacy systems and traditional, tech-averse mindsets continue to present barriers to change.

Certainly, the challenge for digitization is that digitizing the way we do things today provides only limited benefits. In contrast, undertaking a fundamental digital transformation to remove unnecessary processes and move to a "To Be" process model which focuses on the future state of the organization can deliver greater effectiveness in terms of improved citizen and workforce experience and long-term cost savings. Leaders need to demonstrate the confidence to maintain the momentum of transformational change for citizens and their workforce, as well as for their balance sheet, rather than retreating to incremental steps. They should not let "industrial age governance" reassert itself.

In summary, many areas of government have been rapidly forced into the digital future and to seize the potential rewards. Governments should avoid returning to old governance, processes, and the way things were. The public sector should recognize that digital transformation can deliver not only long-term savings and huge effectiveness gains, but also deliver better citizen and workforce experiences.

There's no going back on digital transformation. Yet rather than take its foot off the pedal, Canadian governments have an unparalleled opportunity to rethink old ways of operating, re-prioritize the citizen experience, and re-image a public sector that is more efficient and effective in meeting its citizens' needs.

Let's do this.

1 https://digital.gov.bc.ca/digital-transformation