Digital government: the vital prerequisite to a 'new normal'

As the dust settles and pandemic restrictions ease in the coming months, government agencies have a prime opportunity to shift from a state of reactivity to proactivity.

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While industries like hospitality and retail have been upended by the current health crisis, our government's indispensability has perhaps never been more apparent. Since COVID-19 emerged, government agencies have overcome diverse challenges to assume essential new roles -- whether managing the national stockpile, processing stimulus checks or enacting (and enforcing) unique public safety protocols. Overall, the pandemic has proved that when change is needed, government organizations can adapt and modernize quickly.

The next obstacle is sustaining this great momentum.

A growing divide among digital "haves" and "have nots"

The federal government's COVID-19 response has validated my belief that a digital government is best positioned to serve the populace. From the outbreak's onset, government agencies that previously invested in modern technology infrastructure have realized far better outcomes than their laggard counterparts. For example, agencies' abilities or inabilities to adapt to a virtual work environment immediately distinguished the "haves" from the "have nots."

As the dust settles and restrictions ease in the coming months, government agencies have a prime opportunity to shift from a state of reactivity to proactivity. The chasm between the two ends of the spectrum is already wide, but now is the best time for the "have nots" to catch up. Lessons learned are fresh and resources for change are once again available – meaning that the divide can be overcome during this critical window.

Embracing a new, digital normal

Since March, we've been hearing a lot of talk about adapting to a "new normal." While this post-pandemic environment is just beginning to materialize, we can anticipate several immediate needs in the government sector, including better remote work capabilities, improved employee health and safety programs, and streamlined citizen experiences. In all cases, modern digital capabilities play a pivotal role.

Here are three key areas of consideration federal agencies ought to prioritize in the near term:

1. Reflect on your COVID-19 response and leverage data insights to chart an optimal course forward

Crises have a way of bringing out the best in society – so long as we're willing to reflect, learn from our mistakes (and successes), and enact meaningful change. The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee's recent report outlining federal agencies' top challenges is a great start. Now each individual agency has an obligation to take a deeper dive into their operations, leveraging data to expose areas for improvement. As part of this process, government leaders should probe: What was our number one weakness when COVID-19 surfaced? How accurate are our data sources? What smart tech investments can we make in the short and long term to drive future efficiencies?

Some organizations are already making remarkable headway. The National Archives and Records Administration, for example, leveraged CARES Act funding to bolster its telework protocols. Meanwhile, the Veterans Experience Office is adapting its customer experience training workshops to a virtual format.

2. Evolve the employee experience

Prior to the pandemic, the public sector was already grappling with a skills shortage and aging workforce. However, recent stay-at-home orders triggered widespread adoption of more flexible work policies and collaboration tools.

With the vast majority of federal employees and contractors still teleworking as of mid-June, the public sector has no choice but to embrace these overdue changes and evolve their employee experiences. Doing so will better position the government to compete with the private sector for top talent, resulting in a stronger staff that's better equipped to serve its citizens.

3. Meet constituents where they are

Over the past several months, government agencies of all stripes were forced to introduce or evolve digital touch points to communicate with citizens in lieu of face-to-face interactions. Certain agencies like the IRS and Patent & Trademark Office – who had previously invested in IT modernization strategies – were prepared to leverage integrated citizen experiences, while others had to catch up.

Even when the pandemic is in our rearview mirror, citizen behavior and expectations will have changed, so the onus will be on these government agencies to maintain the same level of remote access and meet people where they are, literally and figuratively.

To be sure, there's no silver bullet to becoming digitized, data-driven and citizen-centric overnight. Rather, it's a journey that agencies – and their constituents – will begin to benefit from the sooner they start. In the ideal "new normal" scenario, all government agencies will take this reality into consideration.

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