COVID-19 and the Awakening of the Public Sector
From one day to the next, the COVID-19 crisis has forced society to confront its own weaknesses and contradictions.
The pandemic is testing the resilience of our society, its economic system, and especially the capacity of our governments and public agencies to respond, to make decisions and to get them right, as though this were all a large-scale, surreal experiment.
It is not the first time that such a brutal pandemic as the one we are experiencing has caused society to rethink its values, its model of growth and of governance. The Black Death in the 14th century and the Boston Smallpox epidemic in the 18th century are historical dramas that served to galvanise research, experimentation, and progress. More recently, some of the countries that had to deal with SARS in 2002 are now benchmarks in the fight against the COVID-19 virus. Although every disaster is unique, and its losses are, in the majority of cases, unacceptable, society must deal with crises, an endeavor in which it tries, fails, or succeeds, ultimately learns from and eventually makes progress.
This present crisis has the potential to drive the modernization and transformation of our public sector. In recent weeks, some local, regional, and national governments have seen how their ability to function and make an impact has been reduced or even eliminated altogether as a result of major operating constraints ranging from a lack of basic infrastructure (such as laptops and remote access) to insufficient knowledge of how digital platforms work.
Over and above these constraints, this crisis has highlighted the need to rethink public services and how they operate, and to invest in digital infrastructure, knowledge, and skills. A new digital logic could reinvent relationships between individuals, companies, and government and ensure fast and efficient adaptation of technology to new and unpredictable scenarios. For example, increasing the number of online help channels (chatbots, applications, etc), and deploying websites that provide reliable, updated information would help governments adapt quickly and easily to citizens’ needs. None of this is new, or necessarily innovative, yet for one reason or another, many of our public-sector organizations still fail to do this.
In addition, there is an obvious challenge in managing public services and maintaining levels of efficiency in remote working environments and highly volatile situations. This requires technological infrastructure and regulatory frameworks that enable the use of identification and certification systems, such as facial recognition. They also require the rethinking of digital decision-making, governance, data management, its analytical and predictive use and the related cybersecurity issues.
The challenges for government in this area do not only include managing the health crisis, but in the ability to react quickly once lockdown is over. The public sector should be the driving force behind the recovery by reactivating all tenders and contracts as soon as possible, managing aid promptly and effectively, and easing red tape in order to stimulate the economy. Technology can help governments manage social welfare and policies for the vulnerable, support the economy in moving towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns, and, of course, to reshape investment in emergencies and safety, building a better capacity to predict and react.
Without wishing to underestimate the magnitude of these challenges, the truth is that over the past few weeks, civil servants and public-sector employees have demonstrated their vocation to society in their efforts and response to the huge demands placed on them on a daily basis. The situation has led cultural and legal barriers to be set aside in order to prioritize the co-creation of value and the public good with innovative companies rarely seen in institutional settings. In this scenario, we are surprised to read stories in the press about small companies working with public authorities to invent, create, manufacture, and test solutions in record time – companies such as Taiger and its artificial intelligence solutions through chatbots; Citibeats and its social listening observatory for public decision-making; OS City and its management solutions for hospital supplies; and ElectronicID whose technology enables people to remotely identify themselves to government via a camera are all part of the solution in these uncertain times.
In this great experiment, governments have been forced to move faster and more effectively, to engage with a diverse and competitive range of stakeholders, and to take on unusual levels of risk and uncertainty. These are three of the core abilities required of digital, adaptive, and resilient institutions. Thanks to the dedication of government employees who are striving to make things better for everyone, from top management to frontline staff, this transformation is now a reality, and it has only just begun.