Globally, speed of action has been a key factor in the success for many governments in responding to COVID-19, but agility and rapid design should not be limited to crisis responses. As governments move into recovery they should learn from the COVID-19 experience and look to embed rapid design into normal operations for policy and services.

In response to the pandemic, governments very rapidly established new services and ways of working, including new temporary hospitals and digital health solutions, supply chains, apps and call centers and stimulus packages, as well as adapting how critical services are delivered to keep them running. Out of necessity, these actions were quickly taken and forced government to focus on citizen-centric design, putting thought into what their citizen customers really need and how they could quickly provide it.

Perhaps the area where there has been the most dramatic change in service design is healthcare. COVID-19 has caused both publicly funded and private health care systems and organizations around the world to rapidly adopt digital solutions. In many countries and territories, the ‘digital front door’ has become the ‘only front door’ for patients to access clinical services. Hospital out-patient and general practitioner appointments across the world have been transformed with as much as three-quarters of all consultations now taking place virtually.

In the US, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services introduced waivers to support increased use of telehealth and expanded scope of practice.

In Canada, Alberta Health worked with a telecommunications company to rapidly roll out online personal health records that integrate primary and secondary care, empower patient editing rights and feature secure messaging functionality.

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 ‘true north’ or vision of what needed to be achieved quickly. The platform will likely continue to burn, fueled by economic pressures, so leaders should focus on setting the true north and maintaining engagement levels in the new reality.

Prior to COVID-19, one of the barriers to rapid policy and service design was the perception that working in this fashion lacked rigor and that a long, slow process represented diligence and due process. Public sector organizations should avoid falling back into that mindset. While some change processes do take time, such as appropriate consultation, there are a wealth of accelerators, which mean that a rigorous and robust service design process can be dramatically shortened.

In the case of consultation, early engagement, co-design and citizen-centric development enable stakeholders to support changes rather than oppose them. The process can also be accelerated by not seeing consultation as a discrete period in the process. Ongoing engagement, leveraging digital platforms and a process of constant refinement of the service means that consultation can start early, be positive and continue while the service is in operation, rather than delaying change. Access to real-time data also enables services to be evaluated and refined while in operation. Some government outcomes take time to manifest but often output measures can be tracked live.

Man using mobile phone

In Saudi Arabia, two smartphone applications, Tawakkalna and Tabaud were rapidly developed and launched to provide people with critical services during the pandemic. Between these two apps, individuals can view instant and live data on COVID-19, diagnose early symptoms and report cases. The apps also alert people in the event of their proximity to an infectious or quarantined area and notifies those who have been in contact with people infected with the virus. In addition, these apps allow individuals to request and follow-up on movement permits in cases of necessity during curfew. To maximize the user experience, these digital services were rapidly designed using a consumer-centric approach that emphasized simplicity in keeping all of the heavy data filling, integration and exchange to the back-end.

In Australia, the New South Wales State Government has released granular, postal code-level data about coronavirus case infection in near real-time.1 This service has been achieved by employing a mathematical index known as the Personal Information Factor to share anonymized public data, while navigating security and privacy concerns. The approach opens up new possibilities to employ data for better management of public systems in the future, such as transport, health, energy and public safety.

This approach could also be applied to Human and Social Services agencies. While these organizations cannot get live data on the future employment prospects for children in care, they do have information about the number of times a child has moved between placements, which can be used to redesign the service to provide more stability. The longer-term academic evidence base that underpins what works can be supplemented and supported by sharing information in real-time to inform decision-making. These data can feed into nimble processes to design, trial, understand and improve services in weeks, under the guidance of a design authority and the ‘true north’ vision.

Women wearing spectacles working on computer

Services no longer need to be designed in silos and governments have an opportunity to offer speed-to-market and proven results by connecting service designers and customer journeys. At the global scale, many governments can learn from peers in other countries and territories, which provide a valuable source of ideas, leading practice and evidence of what can work. This is also true within government where the same challenge is often being addressed separately by different departments, regions and levels of government. Digital tools and databases should enable government 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 be used to strengthen government processes as well as individual services, improving value-for-money.

The step beyond this is to explore “government as a platform”, providing a common framework by which governments can interact with other governments, companies and citizens. 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. 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.

Establishing digital identity within that environment is critical. In the post-pandemic new reality, digital identity will likely be far more than a mechanism to enable security, it is expected to be the foundation on which citizens, businesses and other customers can store and reflect their needs, preferences or eligibility for government services. Digital identity provides the foundation for shared data services and business processes that consider common life events of citizens that require government services, while matching these to the unique circumstances of each individual’s journey. 

In summary, COVID-19 has demonstrated that policy and service design do not need to be slow. By stripping the process back to focus on the customer needs and journey, government services can become more effective and provide more value for money. The building blocks to do so are available now. Prior to the crisis, the sector was accustomed to policy change taking years, while downloading new upgrades to technology each month. Recent pandemic experience has shown that this does not need to be the case.


1 The Australian Financial Review. (2020, May 27). How NSW released COVID data by postcode. Retrieved from:

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