Digital government gets real

COVID-19 may be the spark that ignites digital transformation in the public sector

  • Many public agencies had plans to shift to a mobile workforce model before the pandemic
  • Their biggest roadblock has been the inability to digitize business processes at scale
  • The COVID-19 crisis pushed some agencies to roll out new digital services in a matter of hours

From the outside, many government agencies appeared to be blindsided by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other significant challenges, they scrambled to find logistical and IT support to accommodate thousands of employees suddenly forced to do their jobs from home.

Internally, however, most public agencies have been developing a vision (and in some cases strategic plans) for years to shift toward a mobile workforce model—one that would allow people to work from anywhere with any device, with access to all their documents and data. On paper, at least, many government agencies were already on that path before they ran into a public health emergency earlier this spring.

For many government organizations, the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t been an emergency as much as an ignition switch—one that speeds up the process and allows them to leapfrog immediate hurdles and start delivering these capabilities today.

The biggest hurdles aren’t budgetary. In most cases these agencies don’t face significant cultural or executive resistance, either. The biggest mountain to climb for government organizations is the inability to change and implement new business processes digitally, and fast enough to respond to changing conditions.

Every day, government agencies face challenges in juggling internal processes that don’t impact most private-sector companies. Every change in policy, regulation, or legislation typically requires creating a new business process—whether it’s a new form, a new approval process or application, or some new piece of identification.

In a world shifting from manual processes to automated electronic workflows, the burden of change has fallen mostly to IT teams, who must re-engineer new processes to accommodate new requirements.

For years, this has been a time-wasting adventure for IT teams. It typically involves a long string of change requests implemented in legacy data-management systems. Several months and several hundred thousand dollars later, the job usually gets done. But it’s been painful for public agencies to manage.

Today, however, digital service-delivery platforms already proven in the enterprise have the potential to rescue IT teams from their misery—and to give citizens the kind of responsive, digitally powered service from government agencies that they’re receiving from digital consumer apps and services.

Easing worker re-entry

I’ve seen the seeds of this shift taking root just in the past few weeks. At one federal agency with more than 17,000 employees, IT leaders were challenged to develop and implement a safe and efficient process to allow many of their shelter-in-place employees to return to work at agency facilities.

The agency had lined up medical personnel to screen employee temperatures and oxygen levels to determine if they were safe to return. But they also needed an efficient and secure digital process to collect the screening data and manage positive or negative results, to either approve workers for entry, or send them back home.

Using the ServiceNow platform, and collaborating with solution consultants and engineers, the agency developed a working application in six hours. It was approved and up and running in less than a week.

Digital first responders

A similar success story in Washington state shows how digital platforms can help agencies morph into more agile, efficient, first responders for the citizens they serve—whether it’s a crisis or not. In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., officials dispatched a senior emergency-response team of more than 150 to various locations across the state. They needed a means of figuring out how to fill critical roles in dozens of facilities and get them the resources they needed.

Department of Health CIO Jennifer McNamara tasked an engineering team to build an app on the ServiceNow platform that digitized the process for officials to source critical talent. The app worked so well that McNamara made the app freely available to other organizations and public agencies to help them navigate their crisis responses. The Washington team is also using the app to automate other incident management functions such as resource demobilization, planning, logistics, and finance.

Admittedly, this is still the new frontier for most government agencies, not the status quo. When the pandemic hit, some agencies were more ready than others to leverage digital technology for their emergency responses. But this experience has shown governments worldwide that digital transformation can help them manage all the challenges that lie ahead.