Responding to a crisis: balancing short-term tactics with longer-term priorities

Written by Claire Bedoui, Public Digital, in collaboration with the Harvard Kennedy School. This is part of a series on the 2020 Digital Services Convening.

How digital governments have been responding to the coronavirus crisis was a central theme at this year’s Digital Services Convening, co-hosted by Public Digital and the Harvard Kennedy School. Some digital teams were already well set up to respond quickly, accurately and innovatively, while others aren’t as far into the digital transformation process.

But as David Eaves said in the opening session: “The response was fought with the capabilities one had, not that one wanted.”

At the convening, there was the sense that the crisis has been an awakening for government decision makers: it has revealed the importance of digital services in a crisis, and the lack of digital capabilities in many institutions. More digital service teams had found themselves in the spotlight. This post pulls out the themes we heard from across the 8 sessions, and groups them into short-term tactics and longer-term priorities for meaningful change.

Short-term tactics – accelerating the take-up of good practices

In many cases, the crisis has forced governments to adopt internet-era ways of working that the best teams were already using – but the crisis has accelerated the uptake. We heard a lot about the following areas of good practice.

Fully multidisciplinary teams

Most digital groups were already working in multidisciplinary teams – but these have been taken to a new level to respond to the crisis. Delivery teams have been working very closely with subject matter experts like medical professionals or welfare policy people. Having domain specialists on hand has not only been essential to delivering clear, accurate information, and services that meet user needs; it’s also helped with the pace of decision making and delivery.

The most effective teams have been embedded in – or have a direct line to – the government’s crisis response unit. Including the right people at the right time, has helped teams communicate better between organisations and break silos.

Improving outcomes for citizens through notifications and comms

The convening highlighted so many examples where government digital service groups have played a vital role in getting clear, regular and relevant information to citizens. For instance, we heard from Pete Herlihy from the UK Government Digital Service. In March alone, GOV.UK Notify sent 440 million messages and onboarded 780 new live services. One was a new 2-way text messaging service for extreme-risk people, to help them monitor and report coronavirus symptoms.

And Pascale Elvas, Senior Director in the Canadian Government, said her team has been using analytics from searches and calls to the hotline to reprioritise each day because, “comms need to be relevant, timely and trusted.” Singapore is using Whatsapp for crisis-related communication to citizens: the service has around 1.2 million subscribers and comms are sent out in 4 languages within a 30 mins window. The Finnish Government has also sent advice to influencers who have helped reach people that traditional comms may not.

Spinning up new digital services, rapidly

Attendees at the convening heard about a lot of new digital services – some that have been designed and launched from scratch and others that have repurposed existing infrastructure.

Togo and Bangladesh shared examples of how they are distributing welfare funds. Togo launched NOVISSI, a cash transfer scheme that provides monthly financial aid to citizens in the informal sector whose income has been disrupted during the crisis. The funds are transferred via mobile money and onboarding was remote via USSD. Read more about Bangladesh’s efforts here.

Teams also referenced the inspiration – and sometimes code – they’d taken to build new digital services, including contact-tracing apps. This echoed a call we co-hosted with David Eaves back in April, where the Ontario Digital Service spoke about how they’d repurposed code from Alberta to rapidly launch a symptoms checking service. You may read more about this in David’s article in Apolitical.

Longer term priorities – for when we’re not fire-fighting quite so hard

The convening also looked forward to a time beyond the initial crisis response when teams have more time to plan and be proactive rather than respond reactively to immediate priorities. The following longer-term priorities came up often at the convening.

Reform procurement

Getting the right products and services, and expertise into teams quickly has been essential during the crisis but traditional procurement needs to be able to adapt more easily for crisis response – buyers need access to bigger pools of suppliers and the process needs to be faster.

Push boundaries

Public Digital’s Tom Loosemore spoke about ‘levers’ – the tools digital service units have to lead change within their organisation. Examples include spend controls, service standards, procurement practices, and communications power. We spoke about this being an ideal moment for digital service units to reassess what levers they already have in place, which levers they want, and how to get them. (We’ll be writing more about this topic soon).

Reassess budgets and funding 

The crisis has highlighted the urgency of digital responses and there was a feeling at the convening that the aftermath will be a good time to set out new cases for funding, but also to try to change how digital services groups are funded (as we often say: fund teams, not projects). All teams will come out of the crisis with stories about their experience that they can share with leadership – positive stories will make the case for more funding to replicate the success, while negative ones will be able to point to other governments’ successes to say what they need to improve.

One participant spoke about how they’d wanted to not only protect, but increase, their budget despite intense fiscal pressures. The participant demonstrated to their Finance Ministry how digitalisation has been essential in leading the coronavirus response. Their group has succeeded in convincing the ministry that spending on the digital unit should increase rather than reduce.

For those teams that aren’t in a position to ask for more funding, participants discussed how making a pitch for new levers could be a compelling option.

Hope for change

Over the next few months we’ll start to learn how much more importance governments will place on digital service teams, and how much more they’ll trust and invest in them. This could be a pivotal moment for digital service teams, but it’s far from guaranteed.

We heard from digital leaders with differing reckons about how seriously digital will be taken following the crisis. Some thought that even a pandemic wouldn’t be enough for significant long-lasting change, saying their impression of their government was that they’d “done enough”. Pulling together during the crisis was temporary, and not the beginning of a revolution.

Public Digital’s Mike Bracken on the other hand said that the “key lesson from coronavirus responses is that the machinery of government is often a problem. But, if this pandemic doesn’t change things, I don’t know what will.”

The next few months will be interesting.

No comments yet

Public Digital