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A lot of things have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

In January 5% of the UK workforce were working from home. That figure is now thought to be somewhere in the region of 60% and only held that low by a lack of technical infrastructure in some homes.

High street retailers like Laura Ashley, Warehouse, Oasis, Debenhams – already struggling to compete with online competition folded quickly as the high street went into lockdown.

But perhaps most significant has been the turbo-charged transition towards digitally delivered Government. And like almost every other aspect of this pandemic, once the genie is out of the bottle, it can’t go back. While people will return to work in offices, and wander around shops on a Saturday – the tide has turned, and a new normal of mainly remote working, mainly online shopping, and mainly engaging with Government online will prevail.

The reason the transition has been so rapid isn’t as simple as necessity.Yes, with several major economies in various levels of lockdown, Governments have had to transform the way they provide services to minimise physical contact, at the same time as providing increased levels of support and assistance to large swathes of the population. However, in truth all the pandemic has done is accelerate the pace at which that change has happened.  The value of the change and the direction of travel was already there.

The digital demands of citizens are being shaped every day by their experience as consumers. Both before the crisis and during it. We expect to be able to carry out increasingly complex tasks through our mobile devices. What’s more we expect our digital experiences to be fast, frictionless, and right first time. However, whilst some government services had made serious inroads into matching the digital experiences we have with digital natives like Uber or Google, the majority of digitally enabled public services were struggling to keep up with the changing expectations of citizens. GOV.UK had gone some way but it was really the first foray. Government was already working through how to provide integrated service delivery in a more innovative way but the pandemic has provided a real impetus to work it out. 

The imperative is clear – and involves far more than citizen expectations of service.  We know when we apply technology in the right way, we drive productivity and value for the public pound. This driver for quality and efficiency is at the heart of our civil service – which despite the challenges and changing appetites of government, still seeks to do the best it can for the people of the UK. And these new solutions don’t always need to complicate.

Social media and mobile platforms have been pressed into action, replacing traditional channels as a means to interact with government, report concerns and provide feedback. This means that people can access the services they need in a more convenient and timely fashion and also involve the citizen in the co-creation of the solution.  

This reflects one seismic change brought about by the pandemic – the balance between privacy and facility has shifted. Live streaming of medical consultation, remote monitoring, accelerated use of chatbots for routine enquiries and so on. All of these require the surrender of some personal data to the Government, and a belief that is better to do that, than not to.  From the UK’s NHS to the City of Berkeley, governments and health authorities around the world are preparing to launch Bluetooth apps as part of a suite of measures to support contact tracing during the Covid-19 pandemic. With such apps, infected users could anonymously alert everyone they previously came in contact with while they were at risk of transmitting the virus. There is potential here of course to introduce monitoring systems like that found in Singapore – where users “earn’ freedom of movement by inputting data about their health into a centrally controlled data system.

It will be the ultimate test. Six weeks ago, if the price of leaving the house was to tell the Government your temperature, or to provide data about where you have been and who with – many would have balked. Six weeks locked in your house with your family focuses the mind, and the answer might be very different today.

Trust and security will play a huge part in how that tension plays out.  While reassurances are in place that the data will only be used anonymously to notify at risk individuals and support care provision, that trust would quickly unravel with the first data breach or inappropriate usage by any agency.  Necessity may well drive an increased comfort with data sharing for the common good, the trick now will be to demonstrate the benefit.

The potential is huge. Done well, digital Government delivery has the potential to achieve significantly better outcomes. Firstly, by helping to understand citizens better. By communicating with them in a timely and constructive fashion, it can make services more efficient, more effective, more user focused – giving the citizen what they want/need, when they want/need it.

It can cut across the complexity of government and help provide improved public services – that both cost less and work better.  Value for money will take on a whole new meaning in an economy struggling to recover after the impact of the virus on employment and industry. Digital technologies create opportunities to explore new models for providing services, improve management of resources through smarter spending, and link the money invested in programs and services to the outcomes they produce for citizens, boosting accountability and trust.

It can help find new solutions to policy challenges by bringing new ideas, new models to the table. And it can help Government be at the heart of a real ecosystem – that focuses on rebuilding and reimagining a post Covid economy.

The Governments that grasp the opportunity that a crisis has given us, will accelerate the application of digital government and the benefits to its citizen by a generation. And ensure that all of us are in much better shape to weather the next surge of disruption, whatever form that may take.

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