Speed and agility have been critical in the public sector's response to COVID-19. As Canadian governments prepare for what comes next, there is an opportunity to learn from their pandemic experiences and make innovation and rapid design more permanent in their service delivery approach.

Tech-enabled transformations have no doubt been key to softening the impacts of COVID-19 on essential public services. Public safety restrictions and facility shutdowns have made online services a necessity, while the federal government's adoption of public cloud has helped make critical public safety tools and supports more accessible. Nevertheless, what's important in the long-run is that digital initiatives like these are human-centered at their core.

What does it mean to embrace "human-centric" design? Relative to service design, it means that public-cloud platforms, virtual care models, and other service delivery innovations are informed by Canadians' needs, preferences, and realities. It also means acknowledging the challenges that rural and remote communities face when accessing public services, respecting how various demographics prefer to interact with their public sector providers, and ensuring the race to the "next best digital innovation" leaves no Canadian behind.

Leading by example

Many Canadian public sector entities accountable for delivering citizen-centric services during COVID have embraced human-centered design philosophy. This approach considers the human experience at every step of the process to ensure the final system, service, or product is easy-to-access, user-friendly, and addresses each users's real needs and preferences.

Human-centered design has been used to launch "digital identity" initiatives throughout Canada. In concept, these programs enable Canadians to link and manage essential services through a central Digital ID that retains (and secures) their personal data and preferences.

Several Canadian government organizations (Federal and Provincial) have moved forward with Digital ID solutions. For example, Alberta's MyAlberta Digital ID and Saskatchewan's provincial resident ID solutions help citizens and businesses obtain quick and convenient access to public services, including those in rural or remote communities. The secure nature of these Digital IDs enhances data privacy protection and reduces identity fraud risks by decentralizing information and putting more control in users' hands.

In both Alberta and Saskatchewan, the digital ID underpins access to the provincial Personal Health Record systems (MyHealthRecord Alberta and MySaskHealthRecord). These systems provide each resident of the province with their own personal health record, populated with data from across the provincial healthcare systems to provide a more holistic, streamlined, and citizen-centric approach to healthcare. When the pandemic hit, this model laid the foundation for a system in which COVID-19 test results could be quickly and efficiently communicated to residents that were tested for the virus.

Provinces across Canada are pursuing their own solutions to integrated healthcare. "Healthcare command centres" are being established in provinces like Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan that leverage artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, and healthcare professionals to connect and coordinate every step of a patient's journey. These successful initiatives have demonstrated the value of putting patients, families, and caregivers at the center of a public service, wrapping additional services around their medical home team, and ensuring they receive the right care no matter where they reside.

Certainly, COVID-19 has demonstrated that policy and service design can be rapid. One example is a recent collaboration between KPMG and the Toronto Foundation for Student Success (TFSS) to launch a rapid digital citizen service that would help meet students' nutrition needs despite COVID-19 school closures. Leveraging the agility of the CE Transformation Method, KPMG created a digital solution for sending food cards to approximately 3500 students under the TFSS Food for Kids emergency program.

Placing the end-user at the core of public sector service design leads to more efficient, impactful, and sustainable programs. By stripping the process back to focus on the customer's needs and journey, government services can become more effective and provide more value for money.

Services without borders

The days of each Province owning and hosting their own applications are fading. The slow and steady movement to cloud-based citizen records has made it all but necessary for provinces to embrace data-sharing across provincial lines to follow Canadians wherever they move. As this happens, we must also take a more concerted look at the legislation hindering the success of these new, more innovative service delivery models. Today's competing privacy & data protection statutes, definitions, and rules between provinces are only getting in the way of progress, especially given the volume of interprovincial movement.

Streamlining access to services

The pandemic has taught us many lessons. In the case of how Canadians access and interact with government services, it has driven home the fact that governments have an opportunity to offer speed-to-market and proven results by connecting service designers and customer journeys. Digital tools and systems should enable governments to share and re-use service components that meet the needs of citizen cohorts and improve their experiences. In that way, the product of design-thinking can strengthen government processes and individual services, improving value-for-money.

The step beyond this is to explore "government as a platform (GaaP)." In this framework, governments serve as a collaborative, open platform through which civil servants and citizens alike can link to various public-sector services. Rather than connecting designers, a whole-of-government platform only requires one delivery method (e.g., a payment system) and integrates the citizen customer journey. Take, for example, the UK's GOV.UK platform, a publishing hub used by many UK governments and agencies, or GOV.UK Verify, a citizen-facing platform to help UK residents validate their identity when using government services.

Developing data access safeguards are a pre-requisite for such a platform, but it reduces the risk posed by personal data being held by a variety of organizations with differing levels of cyber resilience.

In summary, rapid service design in response to COVID-19 was driven by three conditions: a burning platform for change, collective buy-in and engagement, and a vision of what needed to be achieved quickly. The platform will likely continue to burn, fueled by economic pressures, giving leaders further motivation to focus on setting the "true north" and maintaining engagement levels in the new reality.

The Canadian government has already proven its ability to adapt public services during a time of considerable need; now, opportunities exist to lock-in its successes and continue the journey.

Let's do this.