Best PracticeFrom apoliticalGovernment
March 31, 2020

How digital service teams are responding to Covid-19

Over the past week, with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, I’ve been in conversation with a number of digital leaders at all levels of government keen to share first lessons of how they’re addressing the pandemic.

The Covid-19 world is a fast moving one. Everyone I spoke to talked of how it is all hands on deck to help mitigate the worst case scenario and ensure that basic operations of government continue.

A crisis like this lays bare our weaknesses, but also unleashes untapped sources of creativity, solidarity and leadership to address them. Every leader I’ve talked to has been keen to share lessons and challenges as well as learn, and quickly, from others.

Listed below are lessons that have come out of a session I ran with chief digital officers from several European capital cities and ongoing conversations with staff at several national digital services groups.

Some organisations contacted are at the forefront and, since they were impacted earlier, their experiences might be useful for other places that are starting to feel the effects of this terrible pandemic.

I have some additional sessions with various teams planned in the coming week, as well as a number of one on one conversations, so I will be updating this piece again.

Here are some lessons we have learned so far — from the tactical to the longer term:

If you’re a digital public service team, there are some quick things you can start doing right away:

  • Create a simple flat file version of your website with the most essential information. A lot of government websites are crashing due to increased traffic. Creating a flat file website with the most important information that you can stand up if your site is overwhelmed can ensure your citizens have access to the most important information if your site goes down.
  • Update your 404 page. Add the most relevant Covid-19 related links in case someone gets the wrong URL and is not tech savvy enough to know what a 404 page is. This can help steer them to where the right information lies. It would also be wise to link to key national websites and resources.
  • Make sure your governance and decision-making remains up and running. In some places, the law requires political decision-making bodies such as councils to meet physically to make decisions. It may be a good idea to get your local or regional government to adjust rules to be able to pass resolutions remotely now, before you are overwhelmed by the crises, to ensure decisions can continue to be made over the coming months if a period of self-isolation is drawn out.

There are also multiple other actions that cities are taking to match those in need with those who can help, engaging citizens through dashboards and hackathons, tackling misinformation, and collaborating to continue operations and service delivery remotely and through partnerships. At the end of this piece, I have added a list of useful resources.

Share best practices by sharing code

Building on other national and subnational solutions is also an efficient way to build quick response efforts.

Digital government teams in Latin America like Ecuador and Brazil are leveraging international networks to share source code for Digital Triaging Tools and apps that can be adapted for quick deployment. The government of South Korea is also sharing their digital tools for tracking quarantined patients and self diagnosis.

Citizen facing notifications are also an important tool. For example, in Italy, self-isolation reminders have been sent to suspected cases, which, according to our conversations with a public servant in the Italian Digital Service, seems to have had an impact on early isolation and timely health help.

Almost every digital government official I’ve talked to is addressing a second, equally challenging crisis — enabling every employee in their organisation to suddenly work remotely

This is a place where shared code could also be helpful. Government notification services such as GOV.UK Notify can allow existing or new government services to cheaply and easily reach citizens with important services. Having such infrastructure in place (and possibly deploying it now, could be very useful). The Canadian government created their own version of GOV.UK Notify after we introduced the two teams last July.

A note of caution should be added here, however. Building platform services like single sign on, online payments or digital identity cannot be done quickly and may not make sense to do it locally. Others – like GOV.UK Notify – can be launched relatively quickly and have an open code base to facilitate this, but building something from scratch may not make sense and efforts can be more impactful if directed elsewhere. It also may not serve a country well to have every local government standing up its own notification tool, rather than rely on a shared national one, such as in the UK.

Think about data strategically

Governments will be looking to access datasets — often from other organisations — as well as being asked to share data of their own. The crisis will reward those who have the infrastructure and standards in place to share and exchange data, and may put pressure on those who cannot stand up the capacity quickly.

If one is standing up a new data sharing agreement speed will matter, but be prepared that anything that is established may become part of a permanent infrastructure, so finding ways to standardise and formalise the arrangement will make it easier to exchange other datasets in the future.

Governments should also be cautious about leveraging personally identifiable data.

In some countries, the government’s proactive efforts to text citizens or track contacts of infected people have seen a backlash due to lack of consent and privacy concerns. While these concerns may feel secondary, a drop of public confidence or trust in government may make people both reluctant to share critical data going forward (or equally badly provide false data) undermining the government’s ability to measure and address problems.

Second challenges

Listed above are challenges that relate more directly to addressing the containment or management of Covid-19. However, almost every digital government official I’ve talked to is addressing a second, equally challenging crisis — enabling every employee in their organisation to suddenly work remotely.

In emerging markets that has included challenges such as finding enough equipment. One government has been soliciting donations from the public for old computers so employees can use them at home.

The most significant lesson coming out of the crisis, however, is the importance of having a digital strategy and a technological infrastructure in place

Both mature and emerging markets are struggling with supporting staff in using new tools and taking on new behaviours needed for remote work. Some governments are recruiting volunteers from the tech sector to simply offer “technical support” to help teach people how to use Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Slack and other tools as well as how to run meetings and manage their work flow while working remotely.

There are also a growing number of efforts to coordinate volunteers to help with government efforts. One example is the US digital Response and a great local example shared via CivicHall to the NYC United Against Coronavirus – Resources and Information.

Another key challenge has been limited licenses and capacity of various systems. Several governments are busy procuring additional “seats” for services, while others forbid some staff from using videoconferencing services since their infrastructure — such as their firewall — cannot meet the demand the current circumstances are generating.

Do not forget what comes next

While everyone is now focused, and rightly so, on dealing with the most urgent problems, government leaders are already thinking about what comes next after the worst of the crisis has passed.

First of all, this crisis will have a serious impact on particular populations and groups, such as people with precarious jobs, those with risk of having mental illnesses or small and medium sized enterprises. One can also start to anticipate how this might impact online government services. For example, I anticipate that local government 311 call centres will experience an increase in call volumes from citizens that are anxious or, even simply lonely and looking for human connection.

Monitoring call volumes and developing a strategy to identify or divert these calls to volunteers or others may become important.

The big picture: digital readiness is crisis readiness

The most significant lesson coming out of the crisis, however, is the importance of having a digital strategy and a technological infrastructure in place.

Critically, this means digital infrastructure at both the national and local levels. For example, those places with wide and deep broadband coverage (Reykjavik), digital identity and data sharing platforms (Tallinn), or the technological infrastructure to work remotely (Riga) have been able to leverage these assets to better deal with the crisis and continue to provide services successfully.

this crisis has shown that digital is no longer a nice to have

Governments will likely emerge from the crises with a greater sense of the need to have digital solutions in place. It is hard to ask citizens to shelter in place and work from home without a broadband strategy and online government services. This means there may be more appetite to put in place the technological, legal and data infrastructures needed to enhance digital government generally and crisis readiness specifically.

As the short term crises abates, digital teams at all levels of government have a responsibility to assess what worked and didn’t work, and use this information to present new, more ambitious plans for the immediate future.

In short, this crisis has shown that digital is no longer a nice to have.

It has also mobilised a tremendous creative energy by public leaders and workers, researchers, experts, startups and corporates to come up with solutions to particular problems. We have a responsibility to ensure that this collective wisdom is channelled to help each other now and shape the world that is coming next.

We’ll be updating this piece with new lessons and stories as we gather them. Please also feel free to send us best practices or challenges your digital team is facing.

Resources

In the following links, you can find some compilations by the Ash Center at Harvard, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Bloomberg Associates, the National League of Cities, among others. Internationally there is a wonderful list of resources, crowdsourced by the Open Government Partnership. We will be updating this list as well.

Lists of examples of good response work:

  • The Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Sector Resource Kit for Covid-19
  • For US Cities, the National League of Cities has a local action tracker sharing various city responses – this is too large to simply mine, but it can be useful to go and see what communities near your are doing

Likewise, if you are the Chief Data Officer of a local government in the United States, you may want to connect with the Civic Analytics Network, hosted by the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School.

This network is led by my colleague Steve Goldsmith, who is putting together a webinar with CDOs to share lessons on best practices around data gathering, sharing and use. For more information email Christina Marchand or the Civic Analytics Team.

This piece originally appeared on Apolitical, the global network for public servants. You can find the original here. For more like this, see Apolitical’s government innovation newsfeed.

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David Eaves

This article is written by David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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