The other day I had a conversation with a senior decision-maker from a European government about potential hurdles to the roll-out of a COVID-19 vaccine. What worried this client most wasn’t the probable resistance from the minority of citizens who will be adamantly opposed to taking it.
Instead, what he found more concerning was the potentially much larger slice of the population who might take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. People are perfectly prepared to take the vaccine eventually, but not wanting to be first in the queue. It’s these citizens who might slow down the roll-out the most.
Blending effectiveness with trust
To me, that discussion underlined some key nuances around how governments must respond to the pandemic. True, operational effectiveness and speed are key. But issues of trust and ‘hearts and minds’ are equally critical to success.
This message has been reinforced by our European Government Resilience research we’ve conducted between July and August 2020 among 300 public service leaders from France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom. And it’s a vital lesson to take on board as Europe’s governments look to draw on the experience of the pandemic to build resilience to future shocks.
So, what did our research tell us? First, some context. As we all know, governments in Europe and worldwide are facing the challenge of balancing the health and economic impacts of the pandemic on their citizens. Most countries have implemented economic stimulus packages to protect the economy and jobs, while simultaneously putting measures in place to protecting citizens’ wellbeing and health.
Against this background, our research – supplemented by our everyday conversations with public service leaders across Europe – reveals three common themes. If these are addressed well, we believe they can help not only with governments’ ongoing response to the pandemic, but also with their ability to navigate future disruptions.
of European public service leaders said that both standing up new digital solutions and responding to spikes in demand for existing digital services were highly disruptive.
of the public service organisations that we spoke to are using social listening to a great extent.
1. Forecasting and agility
To date, one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been forecasting citizens’ demand for services and then responding in a timely way. And it’s not only the size of the demand that matters, but its nature too: even in a world where ‘no-touch’ is increasingly important to prevent viral transmission, the ‘human-touch’ is still vital when dealing with immensely personal issues like health or financial worries.
The key is to use technology in ways that maintain the human touch – such as leveraging it to anticipate people’s concerns and develop responses to alleviate them. In our research, approximately 60% of European public service leaders said that both standing up new digital solutions and responding to spikes in demand for existing digital services were highly disruptive. High on their list of priorities was shifting away from legacy IT to newer, more scalable and resilient technologies that will enable a more agile and human-centred response – along with using real-time analytics to anticipate surges in demand from citizens, enabling actions that better meet their needs.
2. The changing government/citizen relationship
Governments have had to make decisions that affect different segments of the population in different ways. For example, according to the OECD, young people and women are among those at greatest risk of joblessness and poverty as a result of the pandemic. They generally have less secure, unskilled jobs and are highly represented among workers in industries most affected by the crisis, such as tourism and hospitality. And more generally across society, there have been significant impacts on people’s income, liberties, mental and physical health.
As governments have striven to minimise these impacts while tackling the pandemic, none of the choices they have had to make have been easy or enviable. Almost half – 47% – of respondents to our survey believe the pandemic has had a negative or very negative impact on trust in government. And the starting-point before this dip was also not high: prior the crisis, OECD research conducted in 2019 found that only 45% of citizens trusted their government. But now there is an opportunity for governments to claw back the lost trust by increasing their collaboration with citizens.
Take ‘social distancing’. It’s a difficult phrase: to a large extent it should really be termed ‘physical distancing’ (in a social setting). To help address such issues to rebuild trust, we would urge governments to engage in more social listening through social media and more social collaboration to understand the concerns of citizen groups. Only To us, this represents an opportunity to embrace.
Almost half - 47%- of respondents to our survey believe the pandemic has had a negative or very negative impact on trust in government.
3. Embracing next-generation service delivery
The third theme – which builds on the need to deliver services with more agility – is the need to advance to the next generation of service delivery. The efforts that governments have put into the first phase of the pandemic have been huge. However, fewer than 20% of the agencies that we spoke to have conducted large-scale deployments of new service models during the pandemic. Of these, the most common was virtual service delivery such as home-working.
Looking forward, we believe there are several areas that governments should focus on to help them navigate this and future disruptions. The first is moving to virtual collaboration. Many organisations have enabled remote working, and the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 found that 80% of employees plan to accelerate the digitisation of work processes – such as using digital tools and video-conferencing – in response to the pandemic. Going further by increasing the level of collaboration that can take place remotely can help the workforce become more agile and customer-focused. While remote working works quite well for activities that people do alone or for virtual meetings, the next step is using technology to facilitate activities where they collaborate with others, such as designing something together or using agile delivery techniques.
Other opportunities include migrating to cloud environments. This will not only help with scalability and resilience at times of peak customer demand but also can likely reduce ‘time to market’ for new services. Working with ecosystem partners – both within and beyond the public sector – can help bring new ways of resolving problems in a shorter time. And finally, to grow trust and get the right balance of outcomes between citizens’ health and economic vitality, the solutions that governments deliver should be built using a human-centric design philosophy, putting the citizen and their experience at the centre.
The pandemic has been a traumatic and stressful time for governments, businesses and citizens alike. But if lessons are learned, some changes / improvements can come out of it – in the form of more agile, responsive and citizen-centric public services better able to flex with changes in the scale and nature of public need.
Do you agree with these themes? Are you seeing other priorities emerge? I am keen to hear from others about what you are seeing and experiencing. Or if you are interested to learn more about our research results, please reach out to me directly.