There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated a move to digital across sectors. As Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella noted during his company’s April 2020 earnings call, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”.1 Around the world, this trend has been particularly visible at all levels of government.
Industrial Age governance, which still dominated public sector organizations throughout the last decade and acted as a brake on digital transformation, was quickly disengaged. As a result, departments across national, regional/state and local governments are today routinely doing things remotely that they would have considered impossible just a few months ago such as parliaments holding virtual meetings or whole services being developed and delivered remotely. Within the sector, there are two groups that are likely to press to maintain and accelerate digital transformation.
- The digital natives within government entities are likely to want to keep their foot on the gas pedal of change and maintain these advances.
- The private sector and citizens who have become much more used to working online and are therefore becoming more demanding around ease of access to services and the usability of digital apps.
On the other hand, spending through COVID-19 stimulus packages and the damage to economies will likely result in spending controls being applied across government departments and agencies, towards the end of the year and beyond. The aim will likely be to transfer funding from less essential programs to enable continued expenditure at the ‘front line’. The need to digitize and the need to spend less could be seen as conflicting priorities, particularly since some shortcuts have been taken in the rush to digitize, leaving cyber vulnerabilities that urgently need to be addressed.
The challenge for digitization is that digitizing the way we do things today releases only limited benefits. In contrast, undertaking fundamental digital transformation to remove unnecessary processes and move to a ‘to be’ model, can deliver greater effectiveness in terms of improved citizen and workforce experience as well as 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 the shackles of ‘industrial age governance’ reassert themselves.
In March, the Estonian government employed a uniquely digital approach to addressing the pandemic and organized a ‘Hack the Crisis’ event, crowd sourcing ideas from the general public.2 Within six hours, they sourced 96 ideas from more than 830 people through an online collaboration hub. They have now deployed 27 teams to work on ‘moonshot ideas’ to tackle the crisis or position Estonia well for the aftermath, ranging from digital tutoring to e-healthcare, arts and culture, reform to workplace regulations to support agile working, and community volunteering.
In Canada, COVID-19 has rushed the adoption of a digital first mindset across the public sector. Historically, digital was one of many service options, but now it often represents the only option. What were once discussions about “when” Canada would be fully connected, have turned into concrete funding, timelines and rollout of a digital first mindset across all levels of government. From citizen digital identities, to public cloud adoption, to embracing a mobile workforce, all change is now on the table and delivery is rapidly increasing from coast to coast. The province of Nova Scotia for example, has committed to connecting virtually all of its citizens and business over the next 12 months, to dramatically increase telehealth and other government services where citizens reside.3
In Australia, the Department of Education for the state of New South Wales has launched a digital strategy for schools4 to help students learn on their own terms through personalized and flexible programs and to give teachers support to deliver richer learning experiences. This strategy also aims to better connect parents and caregivers to their child's learning journey.
There are several fundamental foundation stones to digital acceleration that deserve greater attention from governments. These are: the cloud, data/analytics, defensive cyber/security and mobility.
In many government departments there has been a reluctance to adopt the cloud, with many citing security concerns. These have mostly been laid to rest and there is now an increasing openness to it as the most fundamental of the foundation stones.
There is also increasing recognition that data is a critical and under-utilized asset in government. Data analytics offer the opportunity to deliver insights regarding citizen customers, the organization or potentially adversaries and enable evidence-based decision making.
Given the legacy IT estates across governments, the importance of cyber security cannot be over-emphasized as departments undertake digital transformation. This is a key board risk and that needs to be managed proactively.
The foundation stone that has perhaps been most under-served across governments is that of mobility. Mobility is not just about mobile phones but relates to the ability to deliver access to capability and applications to and from a range of devices, for instance delivering services to citizens wherever they may be and whenever they wish to access them. It also refers to linking all the sensors in equipment, thereby enabling such things as predictive maintenance over rolling stock.
The sudden transition to remote working has 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, or otherwise, the deployment of 5G, in terms of both policy and regulation. Those who move early are likely to reap major economic benefit.
For the wider economy, digitization in the post-pandemic new reality will likely require government to take a policy and regulatory lead. It will need to support and enable economies struggling to deal with physically distant commerce, accelerated online commerce, as well as things like the move to a cashless society.
In summary, many areas of government have been rapidly forced into the digital future and to seize the potential rewards. Governments must 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.
1 Microsoft. (2020, April 30). 2 years of digital transformation in 2 months, retrieved from https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/blog/2020/04/30/2-years-digital-transformation-2-months/
2 Accelerate Estonia. (n.d.). Hack the Crisis: from idea to execution in just 6 hours. Retrieved from https://accelerateestonia.ee/en/hack-the-crisis/
3 Province of Nova Scotia. (2020, May, 11). Accelerated Internet Projects Update. Retrieved from: https://novascotia.ca/news/release/?id=20200511003
4 NSW Government. (2020, June 5). SDS – at a glance. Retrieved from: https://education.nsw.gov.au/about-us/strategies-and-reports/schools-digital-strategy/schools-digital-strategy-at-a-glance
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