Pandemic was a 'tipping point' for government modernization

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The COVID-19 pandemic prodded governments into a “tipping point” that brought long-overdue digital transformations, yet also revealed the distances many still have to go, according to a new report this week from the consulting firm Deloitte.

The study, which queried 800 government officials from eight countries including the United States, found that many agencies are in a transition period between “doing digital” — using digital technologies to augment legacy systems — and “becoming digital,” in which they follow a mixture of physical and virtual processes.

That shift can be directly attributed to the many functions that had to be converted from in-person experiences to primarily online settings as the virus spread across the world, according to Deloitte.

“From telehealth to telework, virtual courts to virtual education, rarely in modern history have we seen so many large-scale experiments in government rolled out so quickly and at such a massive scale,” the report reads. “But the pandemic also demonstrated just how far many government agencies still must go to become truly digital-first organizations. Surges in demand for benefits often couldn’t be accommodated. Websites crashed. Call centers were overburdened. Telehealth and virtual learning were often slow to scale.”

The goal for governments, which only a few worldwide have achieved, is “being digital,” when advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and cloud computing are used to elevate human-centered design in service delivery. As one of the few nations to have reached such heights, the Deloitte study singles out Estonia, where family benefits are facilitated with an automated system that queries the country’s population register for information on new births.

While most government agencies are not as far along as Estonia, most interviewed by Deloitte came through the pandemic saying that the crisis has accelerated their digital transformations, and that more needs to be done, with 80% saying their agencies’ efforts “haven’t gone far enough.” The report lays out seven “pivots” governments can make to get there, including consolidating and acting on data, creating universal digital ID programs, working with outside vendors and research organizations, flexible staffing and building “immersive, engaging” customer experiences.

One effect of the pandemic is that governments are finally seeing digital services as vital as corporations have, said Bill Eggers, the executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights and one of the survey’s authors.

“Typically, previously, we’d see very big discrepancies between government and the commercial sector in how they thought about digital,” he told StateScoop. “We did not see that this time. We saw very close alignment in most areas in terms of priorities and investments. We might not see complete convergence in terms of user experience, but at least from the standpoint of what they think is important.”

Among the U.S. public sector, Eggers said states and larger municipal governments were further along, especially in terms of experimentation and innovation.

“When you look at the high digital maturity ones, they launch pilots more frequently, scale pilots more frequently, innovate faster,” he said.

But the survey also indicated that government at all levels is likely to be more mature in the near future. “All agencies will have strong digital capabilities in five years,” Eggers said, especially as more move toward flexible cloud infrastructure and embrace robotic process automation to reduce tedious paperwork.

“A big part of the next stage is going to be bringing intelligence into all these programs,” he said. “Really focusing on the AI piece and automation, what does government need to build itself?”

While post-pandemic digitization efforts are unlikely to unfold at the breakneck speeds at which state and local governments scrambled during the early days of COVID-19, agencies should try to move more quickly than they did prior to the health crisis, Eggers said.

“We shouldn’t end up with the speed we had before,” he said. “It should be somewhere in between.”

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Bill Eggers, COVID-19, Deloitte, digital transformation
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