ii) Harnessing cloud solutions
The pandemic forced governments not only to meet a sudden surge in service demand but to do so remotely. The result was that many governments had to quickly pivot their workforces to remote work and create new channels for virtual service delivery—all at scale, in a matter of weeks. For many, the answer to this challenge lay in harnessing the cloud.
While there are many solutions for remote work, from remote desktops to virtual private networks, many governments that depended on these solutions found them insufficient for coping with the sudden scale of remote work during the pandemic. Cloud, on the other hand, by its very nature, was more quickly scalable, allowing for a seamless transition to telework. In California, for instance, 90% of around 200,000 state employees were able to smoothly switch to telework owing to the state government’s early efforts to pursue cloud.6
The shift to cloud not only allowed employees to work remotely but also helped governments reach citizens. In Singapore, for example, public agencies tapped into “postman.gov.sg,” an omnichannel cloud-based communication tool, to send bulk messages with critical updates to citizens. As of November 2020, the tool had been used to share over 1.3 million messages.7
iii) Building a “whole of government” digital architecture
The pandemic also created demand for completely new services. Most government agencies hadn’t planned to draft social distancing regulations or coordinate vaccine logistics at sub-zero temperatures. While these and other challenges may have been new to many parts of government, they were not necessarily new to government as a whole. Therefore, the key to success was creating a “whole of government” digital architecture that could make relevant solutions created in one area of government available to another.
Although this concept is not new, it has taken on new importance as the pandemic highlighted the need for speedy service delivery and continuity across the public sector.8 By building these efficiencies, governments could increase their public notification capacities, improve security, and collaborate across agencies. This is what platforms such as GOV.UK seek to achieve.9 With the help of tools such as GOV.UK Design System, GOV.UK Notify, and GOV.UK Pay, both central and local governments have been able to ensure speedy service delivery during the pandemic. For instance, by adding GOV.UK Pay’s payment link functionality, the UK Home Office was able to create an online payment portal within weeks to support payments that previously required the staff to be present onsite.10
In another example, the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations’ specialized agency for information and communication technologies, has collaborated with the governments of Estonia and Germany, as well as with the Digital Impact Alliance, to catalyze digital transformation in low-resource countries. The collaboration plans to build a digital government platform based on secure, reusable, and interoperable building blocks that can help low-resource nations deploy and scale their digital services without needing to invest massive resources in building their backend systems.11 Smart Africa, an alliance of 30 African countries that aims to establish Africa as a knowledge economy, is the first implementing partner of the initiative.12
2) Creating a more digital public workforce
Building digital infrastructure is necessary to accelerate the digital drive of the government, but it can’t sustain that momentum by itself. Building a digitally fluent workforce is equally essential. The pandemic highlighted the growing need for a tech-savvy, digitally literate public workforce. As a result, governments are driving efforts to raise the digital literacy of their staff.
For instance, as part of the UK National Data Strategy released in September 2020, the government announced plans to train 500 public sector analysts in data science by 2021.13 Similarly, the US Office of Management and Budget put its data science reskilling pilot to practical use, deploying trainees to analyze data sets from their respective agencies.14 In another instance, Abu Dhabi School of Government and Abu Dhabi Digital Authority collaborated to launch a specialized platform, in December 2020, to improve technology skill levels of the Emirate’s public sector workforce.15
Having skilled public sector workers is such an advantage that it is attracting interest from a wide array of partners. Consider Africa’s Digital Skills for Public Service Employees initiative, developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. The initiative helps participating African governments train their workforces in skills critical to recovery efforts, with the added benefit that up to 250 employees get trained free of cost.16 Similarly India’s Mission Karmayogi is a skill development program that aims to educate civil servants in digital technology, through a subscription-based, public-private model.17 Although driven by the digital demands of the pandemic, the skilled workforces developed in these and other programs will help serve the public for years to come.
3) Investing in citizen connectivity
Finally, the benefits of ramping up digital solutions and promoting virtualization of services can be fully realized only when citizens can access such services. Therefore, building public infrastructure that allows better access to digital solutions—especially for the most marginalized populations—becomes necessary.
Several nations have announced initiatives to significantly increase their digital infrastructure spending over the next few years. Investments will go toward improvements such as modernizing technology infrastructure, installing fiber networks to increase internet access, and closing the “digital divide” between the best- and least-connected communities.
For instance, Spain’s government plans to invest €20 billion in digital infrastructure over the next three years, with an additional €50 billion in private investment as part of its Digital Spain 2025 initiative.18 Meanwhile, the French government intends to spend €7 billion on digital investments, including upgrading public information systems and ramping up digital inclusion efforts for elderly citizens.19
With more citizens using smartphones to access services, improving mobile connectivity is also critical. Take the case of Thailand, where 5G networks are a pivotal component of the government’s Thailand 4.0 digital recovery plan, and have helped to drive collaboration between the public and private sectors.20 Similarly, the Scottish Government announced £4 million of funding to build a series of hubs that would deploy 5G services across the country under the Scotland 5G Connect Programme.21 In Australia, the government allocated approximately US$21.2 million to accelerate 5G deployment, including investing in 5G commercial trials and testbeds across key industry sectors.22
- According to Gartner forecasts, worldwide government IT investments are shifting from devices and data centers to software and IT services, which together are projected to account for nearly half of the US$452 billion of government IT investments in 2021.23
- In the United States, the Biden administration has proposed adding US$9 billion to the Technology Modernization Fund for setting up shared IT and cybersecurity services across government.24
- South Korea, recognized as a leader in COVID-19 response, was also ranked the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2019 Digital Government Index.25
The pandemic has been an inflection point in the digital maturity of governments. While the initial efforts to accelerate digital transformation have reaped dividends, governments will need to continue the momentum. This means agencies should adopt a cohesive approach to modernizing their digital capabilities. Some of the essential components include the following:
- Embracing operational adaptability. Expand the business models that can help the agency adapt and thrive in changing conditions. Rethink the end-to-end organization structuring and break the silos that affect optimization.
- Building a flexible and scalable infrastructure. Leverage cloud computing for scalability and agility in administrative processes.
- Creating intelligent workflows. Continue to leverage AI and automation to increase efficiency and migrate human resources to higher-value tasks.
- Enhancing infrastructure resilience. Provide cyber response and resilience to secure infrastructure (network and IT), apps, devices, and data at the center and the edge. Adopt federated security to manage situational awareness and access points as contexts change.
- Developing digitally savvy, open talent networks. Support human-machine collaboration to augment the workforce and provide better service delivery. Additionally, inculcate a digital mindset by training and upskilling the workforce.
- Accelerating with control. Identify areas of digital transformation that need the most acceleration. Alternate between improving citizen experience and operational excellence.
- Continuing the momentum. Use the experience of agility during the pandemic to create the case for continuing the pace of digital transformation.