In times of great peril, we can also witness great change. The past year has been one of those times.
The COVID-19 pandemic served as both a sprint and a stress test for the U.S. federal government. Agencies hastened their adoption of digital capabilities, empowering people to collaborate virtually and pivot quickly. Within weeks, leaders met unprecedented challenges. They reimagined their mission and innovated to meet citizens’ needs, while expediting IT modernization initiatives and shifting to completely new operating models. People at all levels of government demonstrated speed, flexibility, creativity, and collaboration, all of which are critical to innovation and digital transformation.
Accenture, in partnership with The Atlantic, recently reported on how this change happened — and how it can be a blueprint for future progress. Because now, as we start to imagine a post-pandemic world, the question is: Will the government be able to sustain its renewed spirit of agility and resilience?
In this revealing three-part series, we share success stories and diverse perspectives from a range of government, industry, and academic leaders. We also highlight three important learnings that emerged from our reporting:
We base these learnings on how we’ve witnessed agencies adapt over the past year. What have we seen?
1. Agencies expedited the adoption of technology for a more resilient workforce
U.S. federal leaders faced an onslaught of unforeseen challenges in 2020, as COVID-19 necessitated rapid changes to the way government works and the way it serves. But from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the Department of Health and Human Services, to the Department of Defense, among many others, agencies rose to the occasion, innovating to successfully deliver their mission in new ways. So, how did they do it?
The first article in our series, "How the pandemic tested government resilience," takes a look at how federal agencies reinvented themselves. Many transformed from organizations with a traditional, in-person culture to more flexible, creative, and collaborative organizations. They realized the power of investing in both infrastructure and public-private partnerships to help scale their IT modernization.
"Before COVID-19," says Ira Entis, managing director of growth and strategy at Accenture Federal Services, "many agencies were already moving to the cloud and investing in artificial intelligence, data analytics, and other modern technologies. We’re only just starting to scratch the surface of how these technologies make a difference in our lives—and innovation is key to tapping that potential."
2. Agencies placed a stronger emphasis on customer needs
Admittedly, some agencies were more prepared than others in the early days of COVID-19. And those organizations that were ready to pivot shared similar practices, including a focus on people, agile approaches, and a growth mindset.
"Agencies that had already started investing in IT modernization, particularly in collaborative tools to help cultivate innovation in their culture—like cloud, agile delivery methodologies, and DevSecOps—those were the ones that could respond and react most quickly," says Christina Bone, senior innovation architect at Accenture Federal Services. "But it takes more than the right technologies to really inspire the art of what’s possible."
In our second article, "Three agency essentials to innovate with purpose," we share lessons learned from agencies that innovated and scaled quickly using human-centric design, rapid prototyping, and a culture of collaboration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention partnered with Microsoft, for example, to launch an AI-powered chatbot, the Coronavirus Self-Checker, within 48 hours. And because the chatbot was created with cloud-based software, other healthcare providers across the United States were able to create their own versions. This was a powerful example of how to successfully blend the best of technology and people.
"The consistent path to success is a relentless focus on human experience," says Tim Irvine, managing director at Accenture Federal Services and lead for the Accenture Federal Digital Studio. "Think about the people who are being affected by an existing condition and do the work to understand how they’re being affected. Once you understand their pains, you have an opportunity to address their articulated–and unarticulated–needs and desires. This not only simplifies complexity but brings unexpected delight in the process."
3. Federal health agencies emphasized data-driven, virtual-first operating models
As people sheltered in place during the pandemic, making their homes into workplaces and classrooms, more doctors than ever before suddenly made house calls too. Virtually, of course. Telehealth visits surged, as did online prescription refills, and health app adoption, particularly among veterans. In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs reached 79 percent more veterans through virtual care in 2020 than it did in 2019.
"We know that virtual healthcare works," says Ron Moody, M.D., chief medical officer at Accenture Federal Services. "Now we need to take what we’ve learned during the current crisis and transform healthcare into a virtual-first system.
In our third article, "Why healthcare won’t go back to the way it was," we examine how the pandemic accelerated an uptake of telehealth and digital care services in the United States. And now that more patients and providers have experienced virtual health services, they understand its value. Looking ahead, it’s clear that continuous innovation, analytics, and public-private sector collaboration will be necessary to making more digital-first services mainstream.
"There has been unprecedented collaboration in the wake of COVID-19 on numerous fronts," agrees Jill Olmstead, who leads Accenture Federal Services’ management consulting practice for federal health agencies. "Researchers are collaborating like never before to create vaccines and therapeutics, providers are partnering with technology companies to develop their virtual care capability, and patients are sharing their data in multiple ways. This combination of technology and human ingenuity is amazing – it’s just the beginning of enduring changes to the health ecosystem."
Clearly, COVID-19 has catalyzed a shift in the mindset of both government employees and citizens. Now that people have experienced new ways of doing things—such as working remotely, communicating with AI chatbots, and providing and receiving healthcare services from home, just to list a few—they don’t want to go back to the way things were.
We’re now at a pivotal crossroads, with countless opportunities to make lasting change. Government has both the resources and the capacity to scale digital initiatives, especially when it works in collaboration with leading innovators in the private sector. As data and new technologies become more embedded into the digital fabric of our lives, government can create lasting reforms that will transform society for the better.