COVID-19 was a test in digital adaptability for many governments. Now is the time to invest in reforms that support digital teams and upgrade tools.

For the past few decades, governments around the world have been investing in digital initiatives. They’ve been applying internet-era operating principles to government promises to reshape our institutions and make them better able to deal with uncertain futures. But too often the hook for digital initiatives has been pursuing the shiny new app rather than the fit-for-purpose institution.

The past few months mark a change. Extraordinary teams around the world have delivered vital new services rapidly, in a highly uncertain environment. We’ve seen the power of those teams, but also the friction that makes their work hard. We’ve seen the need for agile, adaptable government writ large.

Our work at Public Digital (a consultancy helping global institutions that matter to thrive in the internet era) has given us a broad perspective across how governments globally are responding: from our client work, in the session we ran with the Harvard Kennedy School and the conversations that sprang from monitoring response websites. There are tremendous stories to be told of the work of so many teams over the past few months, but the common themes serve to emphasize that the pandemic only accelerated trends that were already there.

In reflecting on those themes for an audience at the Institute of Citizen Centred Services, it became apparent to me that the past few months have made the case for digital government in a new way. The time of selling the shiny app is over, and now we need to invest in real reforms.

Accelerating trends

When you look at the governments who have had a sure-footed online response to the needs emerging from the pandemic, it’s clear that they had strong digital teams who were ready for the challenge. Some of them got up to speed very quickly, but most built on years of investment. Chris Ferguson at the U.K.’s Government Digital Service commented that “our digital response was 10 years in the making” and Carrie Bishop, Chief Digital Officer of San Francisco notes that “we have been able to respond quickly because the foundations were in place.”

The first of those foundations is skilled digital teams, but crises don’t respect institutional boundaries or protocols, and effective responses require bypassing the normal rules for delivering across agencies. Sierra Leone was poised to do that because they learned from the Ebola crisis in 2014 and built new leadership, including a Directorate of Science and Technology with direct ministerial leadership and convening power to work across different parts of the government. In other countries, making agencies and departments collaborate has consumed far too much attention from senior officials and politicians.

The first of those foundations is skilled digital teams, but crises don’t respect institutional boundaries or protocols, and effective responses require bypassing the normal rules for delivering across agencies.

Investment in platforms and open source code – often perceived as a risky bet in calmer times –  has allowed teams to accomplish far more, far more quickly than they otherwise could, when they needed to most. Good platforms do the common things far better than any individual service could and let teams work faster because they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The U.K.’s GOV.UK Notify platform enabled a National Health Service team to launch a new service and send more than 40 million emails and text messages in just a few days.

Open source coding (the practice of making the code powering services publicly available under licenses that permit re-use) meant that Ontario and Alberta could accelerate development of their own self-assessment tools, by building on foundations created in other countries.

And teams that are set up to monitor and iterate their digital services have been able to launch rapidly and improve over time.

But we’ve also seen the results of under-investment and broken financial models. The risks around legacy technology and systems have long had a lot of airtime, but they became tangible when millions couldn’t register for unemployment benefits. Everyone has those problems, and stories have circulated of people in the U.S. waiting up to seven months for their claims to be processed.

The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, went so far as to form a strike force to review the challenges in his own Employment Development Department. That strike force’s report was, unusually, made public and paints a clear picture of the systemic issues that allow hundreds of thousands of claims to pile up.

And a revolving door in leadership, coupled with inadequate data infrastructure or investment in skills and maintenance has been starkly exposed. In the U.K., reports suggested 15,841 COVID-19 cases weren’t reported (and many more essential contacts weren’t made) when an old version of Microsoft Excel was used not just as a useful utility, but as a critical yet inadequate piece of the nation’s pandemic data management. The full story remains unclear, but anyone who’s worked in such a bureaucracy will be familiar with how what started as a sensible stop gap became essential infrastructure when no one is paying careful attention.

None of what makes digital government work in the time of COVID-19 is new nor are the challenges facing institutions racing to adapt. But both sides have been amplified and accelerated in the past few months.

The case has been made

The crisis hasn’t passed, but it’s been here long enough that we are starting to talk about what comes next. For advocates of digital government, it’s a moment to change the conversation.

Our work is about making governments more adaptable, better able to deliver for diverse societies contending with the increased expectations and new challenges of the internet era. Too often what we’ve had an audience for is the promise of shiny new services, rather than the hard work of institutional reform.

We now have the most tangible example in living memory of how the ability to rapidly understand, adapt and scale is fundamental.

Teams have done that in incredible ways over the past few months, but also at huge cost. One prevailing observation from all the teams I’ve talked to is the sheer human effort it has taken to respond within the bounds of the current systems.

But they have responded, and for all the issues many of us have with how responses have been politically directed, the case has been made that digital teams work.

So, the conversation we need to have now is how do we take the best of what they’ve achieved with extraordinary effort and make it ordinary?

Time for reform

That’s not to say we want to take every way of working that’s been adopted in a crisis into our new normal. On data in particular, shortcuts that have been taken to repurpose data for a rapid response need to be questioned and we need to design and invest in better approaches.

There are five areas for reform that clearly flow from these observations:

1. Digital teams work. The most substantial achievements have come where multi-disciplinary teams have been set up with the right goals, skills and autonomy to meet challenges. Yet too often management and governance structures still work against those teams and they have to expend at least as much effort pushing back as delivering progresses. Leaders need to look out for the patterns there and change the operating models so teams can focus.

2. Legacy systems are brittle, but that’s not just about technology. As technology ages to a point where people with the right skills are retiring, many organizations are investing in technology replacement. But unless we take a holistic look at the manual and automated processes behind our services – as California’s strike force has done so well – we’ll often miss the real issues preventing resilient services. And unless we provide funding in a way that allows for sustained investment, we’re just kicking the can down the road

3. Vital data infrastructure and skills are missing. Hiring data scientists is a good start, but unless they have access to accurate data in a timely manner their impact will be limited. When everyone has been scrambling to adapt, simply asking providers of data like schools, hospitals and local government to provide data faster isn’t tenable. As we step out of the crisis, we can invest in new tools that provide better data and more immediate utility.

4. The things that have worked this year often started as risky bets. Building digital service units, allowing teams to make their code public and investing in platforms increasingly make sense. But it’s been hard to know whether they’d really deliver. During 2020, the perception of risk has changed, and governments have recognised the necessity of acting quickly within uncertainty. As we rebuild, we shouldn’t slip back into what my colleague Dave Rogers calls the “corporate sci-fi” of bureaucratic business cases, but instead create funding systems that allow governments to place bets, observe results and adapt.

5. We structure our organizations based on old certainties and struggle to adapt to new unknowns. Most public sector organizational structures reward managing risk in your domain, and result in huge challenges when service delivery needs to cut across boundaries. Getting accountability right isn’t easy but is essential. It’s vital, for example, that we do not betray the public’s confidence by slipping into the ad-hoc sharing of data. But it’s also not sustainable to require prime ministers to intervene when a vital service needs two departments to build a team together. We need adaptable leaders and adaptable structures if we’re to be better prepared next time.

None of these is easy, but all are essential.

Extraordinary teams have done incredible work in a short time during this pandemic. Real reform is the only way to make it ordinary.

Photo: City of Tehran. Shutterstock/By Sergey Nivens.