COVID-19’s final phase: How governments can emerge stronger, more resilient
This blog was authored by Mike Stone, Global Managing Director, Public Sector, Healthcare and Life Sciences, IBM.
In the 19 months since the World Health Organization announced a peculiar coronavirus-related pneumonia in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has turned families, businesses, and communities upside-down and inside-out. And also governments. From the US to the UK, from France to the Philippines, and from South Korea to South Africa, they were as thrown off-guard as anyone. More so, even. While the rest of us were mere passengers, they were the public-health pilots of an aircraft that had to be designed, engineered, and rebuilt—all in mid-flight.
There was ample turbulence, to be sure. Remarkably, though, government leaders managed to keep the plane aloft through the first two phases of what was predicted to be a three-phase pandemic.
Top challenges: Then and now
Phase I was devoted to emergency response and business continuity. Together, organizations and governments collaborated to track the pandemic’s spread, to support underprivileged students who suddenly shifted to virtual learning, and to modernize unemployment agencies’ systems to accommodate surging requests for citizen benefits.
Phase II was all about recovering and rebuilding. Again, organizations teamed up with their government partners to tackle mission-critical problems like contact tracing, return-to-workplace, and exposure notification.
Now, most of the world finds itself waist-deep in Phase III, during which governments must build strength and resilience in order to emerge from the pandemic more ready for the next global crisis than they were the last. But that’s easier said than done. Before they can graduate from near-term reaction to long-term resilience, governments of all sizes and types must contend with at least four grand challenges that the pandemic has exposed like open wounds that need swift dressing:
- Exploding demand for—and a near breakdown of—services. The public health implications of the pandemic and their economic consequences made citizens around the world more dependent than ever on governments for critical information and services. In March 2020, for example, Australia’s federal human services department, Services Australia, directed citizens to file claims for welfare payments online. When nearly 100,000 people tried to access it simultaneously just after 9 a.m., however, the government’s MyGov website crashed. In the US, 26 state unemployment websites likewise had crashed by April 15, 2020.
- A shift in fiscal priorities. Exploding demand for support and services during the pandemic forced governments to pivot from fiscal austerity, such as reducing spending to make government more efficient, to citizen stewardship, such as increasing spending to make government more effective. In fact, governments around the world collectively added nearly $20 trillion to the global debt load in 2020 alone. And it will not be long before a shift back to reduced spending and debt recovery begins to emerge.
- An adapting workforce. It’s no secret that the pandemic changed how people work. But remote working is only one chapter in a bigger story. The deep and lasting changes that the pandemic has created in homes, businesses, and social institutions require new knowledge and skills that many workers—including government workers—need to develop. In fact, a recent global survey of more than 10,000 employees found that 80% of them had to learn new ways of working during the pandemic, and three out of four had to learn new technologies. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum says that 40% of current workers’ core skills will change within the next five years, and that half of all workers will have to be reskilled by 2025.
- Eroding trust in government. The pandemic has required the public sector not only to provide more and better services, but to do so in a way that keeps economies afloat, protects national security, preserves personal liberty, and improves equity across the population. In that context, trust in government has become a defining challenge for governments. And so far, they’re failing at it: Only 41% of people say they trust government leaders to do what is right.
Core themes to transform government
These are big challenges. And big challenges demand big solutions. As we reflect on the many lessons learned during Phases I and II of the pandemic, we can distill this new knowledge into 4 core themes that will be fundamental to transformation of government in Phase III.
- Rapid innovation and agility – Many governments, even those caught off-guard by the pandemic, quickly shifted to rapid innovation and modernization.
- Trust and transparency – Providing essential services and averting economic collapse are further complicated by demands from citizens for protection, personal liberty, and equity.
- Security – The stress of the pandemic exposed existing gaps in security infrastructure and created new ones.
- Talent and transformation – The workers of today need to become the workers of tomorrow by learning the new skills and technologies that will become ubiquitous among government workforces.
Against the backdrop of the grand challenges facing governments today, informed by lessons learned during the pandemic, these four underpin the highest priorities for governments as they continue the fight against Covid. We believe that there are seven implications government leaders need to consider to emerge from Phase III with strength and resilience.
Becoming stronger and improving resilience
1. Renew investment in emergency preparedness.
COVID-19 may be a once-in-a-century pandemic, but emergencies of its size and scale are not once-in-a-century events. Given the myriad threats confronting governments in the 21st century—everything from cybersecurity to climate change, for example—local, national, regional, and global disruptions are a near certainty. As the pandemic consumes less of their bandwidth going forward, governments must therefore continue to invest and reinvest in emergency preparedness, including the policies, relationships, communication streams, technologies, and physical infrastructure that will expedite future response efforts.
2. Balance faster innovation with stronger governance, control, and cost takeout.
An oft-cited “silver lining” of the pandemic is that it forced governments to innovate and modernize at breakneck speeds. Governments that are used to moving slowly learned that they’re quite capable of moving quickly. Unfortunately, they sometimes embraced speed at the expense of other critical priorities, like security.
Going forward, governments must learn how to maintain a rapid pace of innovation while also exercising strict governance and controls that allow them to be good stewards of data and dollars—for example, by moving to a hybrid cloud approach that facilitates DevSecOps in a way that marries innovation with control and governance. And considering the need to pay down the debt accumulated throughout the pandemic, avoiding shortsighted decisions to cut or constrain digital programs will not only deliver greater citizen engagement, but also deliver cost savings in the mid- to long-term.
3. Accelerate modernization of supply chains for control, integrity, and dynamic agility.
From shortages in consumer products, to the price of commodities, to insufficient access to N95 masks and ventilators, the pandemic exposed the fragility and interdependence of global supply chains. The public and private sectors must collaborate to modernize and regionalize supply chains in ways that make them more agile, adaptive, and resilient. In addition, governments need to design with a focus on supply chain integrity.
The pandemic exposed just how dependent organizations were to singular sources of supply. Essentially, governments and private sector organizations alike are now rightly seeking to diversify their supply chains. But in the case of governments, they also need to consider industrial strategies to protect sovereign needs.
4. Reimagine citizen engagement models and supporting government operations.
Even before the pandemic, consumers were pampered with unprecedented levels of convenience. From online shopping and streaming media to ridesharing and mobile banking, they’ve gotten used to getting what they want, when they want it, and with a frictionless customer experience. That became especially apparent during the pandemic, when quarantined consumers became even more reliant on convenience, thanks to services like food delivery and telehealth.
Big steps forward have been taken, but much more can be done. And through this, governments will have an opportunity to become more efficient, more effective, and even more trusted.
5. Build a robust analytic foundation for increasing situational awareness, predicting potential policy impacts, and providing transparency.
The actions required to respond and recover from the pandemic underscore the importance of both quantity and quality of data. To gain visibility into both problems and solutions, the public sector needs strong systems and governance, both to capture and organize information for situational awareness, and to turn it into actionable, shareable intelligence that can inform decision making at all levels of government. More than that, though, it needs to commit to data integrity and data transparency as a means of rebuilding citizen confidence and trust in government.
6. Amplify the security imperative.
Government modernization during the COVID-19 pandemic has yielded essential new systems and services. The speed at which governments stood them up, however, means security in some cases might have been overlooked, ignored, or abridged.
As a result, government infrastructure has become a vulnerable and attractive target for cyberattacks. The lesson is clear: Governments can no longer afford to treat security as an afterthought and must bake it into new services and systems from their inception—preferably with a “zero trust” posture .
7. Upskill and reskill the workforce through adaptive learning programs.
Many governments that began the pandemic in an analog world are poised to emerge from it in a digital world. Just because their technology has evolved, however, doesn’t mean their workforce has done the same. In government agencies where it hasn’t, legacy employees can be just as handicapping as legacy systems. To bridge the gap, governments must invest in public servants by giving them the knowledge and skills they need to be effective in a post-COVID world. Adaptive learning that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to tailor training and education to individual workers is one tool that can help them do so.
To be successful, we believe governments should approach these seven objectives from the vantage point of four architectural touchstones:
- Predict outcomes;
- Automate at scale;
- Secure everything; and
- Modernize with ease.
How does this look in practice? Consider, for example, supply chain modernization. Healthcare providers and governments need to collaborate with manufacturers of ventilators, for instance, to mine for data, model and simulate—and, ultimately, predict—the impacts of potential changes and future scenarios. Next, they need to automate response processes with AI-assisted workflows to achieve increased reliability and resilience, build in security to protect it from physical and cyber threats, and modernize industrial operations and policies to support automation and sovereignty.
Whether they produce ventilators or citizen services, businesses and governments alike should embrace the challenges and opportunities before them with exactly this type of framework. If they do, they’ll be positioned to emerge from COVID-19 stronger and more resilient than they were before it.