The COVID-19 pandemic has turbocharged the drive to digital government. Moving with unprecedented speed, public sector organizations across the globe have set up critical new services and delivery models. In many cases, technology innovation that would have taken years to implement has happened virtually overnight.

One great example was the Canadian Government’s implementation of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to support millions of Canadians with financial relief. With its employees working remotely, this was delivered in a matter of weeks. At one point, agents were handling more than 40,000 calls a day.

Burning platform for change

This is just one instance of how digital technologies are powering government environments – and the generational opportunity they present to modernize government IT.

There has never been more of a burning platform for change. People and businesses are depending on government to guide them through the next several months, possibly years, of uncertainty. Citizens’ reliance on government – and their expectations of what it can deliver – are higher than ever before.

As government leaders strive to meet these demands, they are increasingly recognizing the need for strong, secure mobile technologies that enable collaboration between departments. Further, it is even more critical to deliver the outcomes that citizens and businesses expect – p public service organizations urgently need to build more flexibility and adaptability into how they operate.

Fast-track to the New

Technology is providing the tools to turn this flexibility and adaptability into reality. Over the past few years, technology companies have dramatically improved the ease of use, security, scale and interoperability of their offerings. The flexibility and cost-effectiveness of cloud services have surged. And there have been rapid advances in emerging capabilities like APIs, data visualization, RPA and machine learning.

Given these developments, the relatively slow pace of digital adoption by government over the past few years could now work to its advantagei. The Government of Canada has made many efforts to embrace new and improved ways of leveraging technology to reduce complexity, optimize back-office functions and digitize service delivery.

Up until a few years ago, delays in adoption were understandable. The obstacles in the way included complex legacy systems, budgetary pressures, and security concerns. But now things are changing – and government has an opportunity to harness new technologies to fast-track to the new.

Leaving past challenges behind

Today, there is a clear ambition across government to be faster, stronger, more secure and to provide a better experience – one that drives higher levels of satisfaction among citizens and businesses.

In line with this new commitment, the Government of Canada’s IT service organization, Shared Services Canada, has moved forward with an enterprise approach. This initiative is focused on helping federal employees to embrace digital tools that are designed to enhance their productivity and enable better collaboration across departments to deliver the essential services Canadians need.

Treasury Board Canada Secretariat has a Digital Operations Strategic Plan that sets this tone across the federal public service by establishing digital standards that prioritize a user-centric approach and leverage the latest digital technologies to deliver high-value citizen services.

Realizing the cloud opportunity

In all organizations, cloud adoption is key to accelerating digital transformation by providing a foundation for implementing and scaling new technologies. But many still struggle to capture its value. Accenture researchii has found that two-thirds of enterprises have yet to achieve the anticipated benefits from their cloud migration journeys. The most common reasons are security and compliance risk (65 percent) and business/organizational complexity (55 percent).

While there is no simple answer to these challenges, part of the solution can be found by working with qualified and experienced private sector partners. When we asked IT leaders to indicate the extent to which they’d consider using managed cloud services, 87 percent said they’d be willing to do so. The most cited benefits from this approach included access to the right skills, lower costs, and network optimization – along with greater security.

Changing for the long term

The response to the pandemic has demonstrated that government can move fast to provide solutions in the short term and citizens have responded favorably to these initiatives. But what comes next? To build on and sustain the upsurge in public trust in governmentiii expressed by citizens during COVID-19, change needs to be for the long term.

Now it is time for the Government of Canada to look back on what has been achieved, collaborate with industry to understand why it worked and consider what mechanisms need to be put in place to increase the pace of transformation. Engagements on the digital policy front, evolution of work, and procurement are all areas where technology has major implications.

By taking the best of what we have seen in the past few months and evolving it further, we can improve government operations and their customers’ experience by creating more flexible governance, new ways of working, more effective service delivery approaches and best-in-class private-public relationships.

Strengthening the relationships forged during the crisis will create a more integrated role for non-government entities, businesses, nonprofits, and citizens. Minister Bains’ Industry Strategy Council and Minister Anand’s COVID-19 Supply Chain Council are two mechanisms established during the pandemic to draw IT and policy expertise and leverage senior public sector leadership.

Moving into the future

The pandemic has shown us what governments can achieve. And the immediate successes in response to COVID-19 provide a platform from which to spring into a new era of transformational change. Now is the time to build on this momentum.

All the elements are in place. Government now has an unprecedented opportunity to meet the needs of citizens, business, and key government workers by harnessing the best of the transformational technologies that are now available. By becoming truly data-driven organizations, government departments can outmaneuver uncertainty and make a lasting difference to people’s lives. Put simply, better public services could be an enduring legacy of the pandemic.

Mark Lambert

Managing Director – Federal Public Service, Canada


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