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May 19, 2020

Why COVID-19 might set digital government back

All over the media, the best experts tell us this is the time for digital transformation of our public services. In many countries in the world, companies, organisations and governments now have no other option but to work remotely in order to maintain organisational continuity- due to the COVID-19 virus.

For many business sector employees, especially those working for global firms, using all sorts of digital tools to work long-distance, from video-conferencing to task-management — goes without saying.

But what about governments?

Different governments have different digital maturity. Their ability to serve the public completely remotely is varied. In an effort to adjust to current conditions, many governments accelerate the development of digital services and remote working processes — and although this is critical to do in the short term, it’s no guarantee that it will work in the long term.

The rush to provide digital services may lead to a fast implementation of solutions that are just not good enough

Digital transformation of public services takes time. Citizens nowadays demand not just e-service or an online submission form, but a proactive digital governmental service, similar to the one they receive from private businesses. The very essence of digital transformation is to reexamine the services strategically, in a user-centric, digital-by-default perspective and to make it more efficient and effective.

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But time is a luxury we don’t have at the moment — the urgent need of governments to provide hundreds of necessary services remotely, is making it almost impossible to conduct an extensive digital transformation process. What we are left with is one of two scenarios:

  1. Insufficient digital solutions becoming permanent. The rush to provide digital services may lead to a fast implementation of solutions that are just not good enough — not by today’s standards, let alone tomorrow’s. For instance, that might mean creating an online version of an offline form — instead of sharing data between government agencies, and without including citizens in the process. Or it might mean building new services without user research or usability testing, making solutions that are difficult-to-use and unfit for its actual users. Another problem is the digitisation of services that might as well be cancelled these days because of more advanced technological solutions — such as requests for issuing paper permits or certificates. If these “solutions” are deemed to work well enough through the present crisis, the risk is that we might be stuck with them a lot longer
  2. Great temporary solutions. The second scenario involves applying temporary patches, that might actually be quite good — but are meant to be removed once the crisis is over. The danger of that scenario is that it brings us back to square one, but with the added waste of time, money and effort. The best example of that is temporary legislation which relies on emergency regulation that expires once things are back to normal. Or, new government digital service channels becoming available only while in crisis, in order to help the government deal with the flux of requests (such as direct emails), but are meant to be stopped once things get back to usual.

There is also a possibility of a third, limited category — good solutions that work permanently, but those are fewer than we’d like to think.

A successful digital transformation requires re-examining multiple aspects of the service

The end result will probably be a mix of these two solutions, in varying degrees from country to country. So what can we do about it once the crisis is over? We don’t have the time now to avoid these problems completely, so once the pandemic is over we need to reexamine again the digital services we built during Covid-19. We need to ask ourselves, honestly and directly: are these solutions good enough? And if not, to modify or transform them again. It is also an opportunity to look at the temporary patches as experiments: if things worked better with the patch, don’t give it up so fast — make sure it becomes permanent.

A successful digital transformation requires re-examining multiple aspects of the service. Below is a list of aspects that can be used now, to mark down what aspects didn’t receive the proper attention and need to get back to after the crisis, or, it can be used after the crisis, to conduct a comprehensive digital transformation to a service:

Regulation: What is the legal basis on which the service is based on? Do we need to change regulations or even legislation to provide the optimal digital service? Changes in regulation take time, they involve both political and civil service levels and require the collaboration of different ministries with different professional expertise areas. In times when most of the world’s regulation is unfit for the digital age, it is crucial to take a brave look into the relevant regulation and change what’s holding the digital transformation back.

Organisational process: Once a citizen applies for a service, what is the organisational process that follows? Which department is in charge of every part of the application, and what are the actions it takes? When transforming an off-line service to an online one, it’s crucial to ask whether every single part of the organisational process is necessary, if we can use technology to streamline the processes and make it shorter and more effective. Digital transformation simply cannot be replicating the same process with online tools.

Technological Systems: What are the technological systems involved in the service application? Usually, the organisational process involves multiple technological systems. It requires specificating it’s different features, deconstructing — and rebuilding them according to the new process. Most governments face outdated legacy systems making changes difficult and time-costly.

Customer Journey: What does the customer have to do to apply for the service? What are their motivations, pains, questions? Talking to real customers is a key principle in digital transformation. Without it — we are left with solutions that don’t fit our citizens’ needs. Conducting interviews, focus group or even online consultation — is crucial.

The coronavirus shifted our world and the way we consume services 180 degrees. Governments all over the world are working tirelessly and diligently to adapt.

To make sure that this incredible hard work doesn’t go to waste, we must remember these are just the first steps needed for a real, holistic and effective digital transformation — not the end.

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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Noa Miller

This article is written by Noa Miller, R&D Manager at the Digital Transformation Division, Joint-Elka, Israel.

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