Even with vaccines being rolled out in many countries, the new ways of working that the pandemic rushed in look set to become at least semi-permanent features of how public service agencies will need to operate. Office buildings, for example, may in due course reopen. But will they still have the same numbers of people working at the same levels that they did pre-pandemic? Unlikely. 

The pandemic’s hold on people’s lives will persist for some time to come. In lots of countries we’ve seen lockdowns ease, only to be reintroduced or even strengthened. And all of this is taking place against a backdrop of declining trust in government[1]. For many governments, it’s now essential to rebuild the trust they worked so hard to earn in the first few months of the pandemic.

One shift that will be crucial both to rebuilding trust and delivering services effectively is the continued move from face-to-face to virtual interactions. To illustrate how significant this shift is, pre-pandemic most agencies had conducted the majority of their meetings with customers in person. They now need to deliver a future where that ratio is reversed yet still provide the services that citizens expect.

Real hurdles to virtual connections

So, what are some of the hurdles that agencies must overcome to get there? Technology constraints remain of course, including the ability to rapidly scale the required infrastructure.

In many European public service agencies, for example, services that use public cloud to support video and interactive meeting applications are currently out of bounds. However, there are moves in place, such as the development of GAIA-X[2]. It’s an interoperable data exchange that allows businesses to share data under the protection of European laws. Developments like that may help lift the current prohibition and will also enable more government-to-government sharing of data between agencies.

Agencies must also address the need to secure citizen data and maintain privacy.  And to do that, authentication is key. Agencies need to find ways to achieve that in a virtual world. In addition, respecting citizens’ privacy means case workers only seeing what they are supposed to see. Virtual access should not mean access to virtually anything.

Human-first

But just as important as technology and data, is the human factor. It’s essential that the shift to new service delivery is not only trusted, but helps to increase trust among the public and agency workers. Agencies need to address the health, social and motivational impacts of operating in an increasingly virtual world. There’s a clear need to avoid case workers and their clients suffering any ill-effects from virtual rather than face-to-face interactions.

The changes that agencies need to make look to be for the long-term. As they continue to evolve their responses, agencies should, among other actions, make sure that they support citizens with clear communication and effective collaboration. The “digital first” message needs to be loud and clear.

They need to further build capacity to meet surges in demand and ensure that operational continuity is maintained by supporting employees to carry out their work in new ways. Monitoring and reporting are also key to glean insights that can improve delivery and provide the public with reassurance as the pandemic and its impacts unfold. And active social listening to find out what people are worried about, how they are feeling and what specific concerns might be, can also provide valuable insights to improve and target services and support. 

The future arrives faster than ever

As the pandemic has already shown, few things are certain other than the future is impossible to predict. But by making sure that new ways of working and communicating become a natural part of business as usual, agencies across the public sector will be best placed to serve people – no matter what comes next.

One thing’s for sure: virtual channels will not go away. Ways of working will not revert completely to the pre-covid era. Getting this shift right is critical – and compromise is likely to be the answer. The best long-term solutions will combine the best of both worlds. To find out how to achieve this balance, take a look at our recent report.

[1]https://www.forbes.com/sites/billfrist/2020/09/04/60-of-americans-say-government-making-pandemic-worse-heres-how-we-restore-trust-in-government--science/?sh=50692ce576a5

[2]https://www.techrepulic.com/article/what-is-gaia-x-a-guide-to-europes-cloud-computing-fight-back-plan

Rainer Binder

Managing Director – Public Service, Social Services Lead

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