Column: Early Lessons from Government Response to COVID-19

Ryan Oakes, Accenture

Ryan Oakes, Accenture

Ryan Oakes is global managing director of Accenture’s public sector practice

The COVID-19 global pandemic has threatened our health, livelihood and peace of mind, and is bringing substantial and likely some permanent changes to our very way of life. Government agencies remain at the forefront of national and local responses to COVID-19, helping to determine and guide the way forward with regards to public safety, worker protection, business re-openings and preparations for an uncertain future.

Public agencies are slowly charting a course back to some semblance of normal operations as they look toward post-pandemic recovery and balancing the “now” and the “next.” This entails grappling with the pandemic’s lasting impact on the public purse, managing increased demands for citizen services and adopting practices to enable more flexible and efficient operations for future crises.

Response Governance

At the outset of the pandemic, many government entities created rapid response teams comprised of public and private stakeholders. Over months of effort, many such teams have been able to maintain and modify basic functions required to keep stability and respond to a deluge of pandemic-related challenges and needs. They have also shown that having the right response team members — a combination of government contributors and non-traditional stakeholders — has been key to successful pandemic response by enabling new ways of thinking and collaborating.

When the governor of New York put out an urgent call for more surgical masks, fashion designer Christian Siriano answered, shifting his sewing staff from evening wear to protective gear. U.S. beer distilleries answered unmet demand for hand sanitizer by shifting production to churn out much-needed disinfectant.

While these stakeholders are not typical participants in a public sector crisis response, they demonstrated resilience and the potential for further public-private collaboration and innovation. Drawing on a diverse range of collaborators, inside and outside government, public leaders can cultivate new and more flexible ways of working and partnering with business and nonprofits for the public good.

Operational Continuity

In recent months, government agencies and response teams have supported citizens and businesses in unconventional ways, becoming more versatile and attuned to innovating at speed and scale. Many public agencies are now overseeing pandemic-related operations while assessing and reviewing their enterprise continuity plans. Such reviews should leverage internal and external expertise and viewpoints to identify operational gaps, remediation plans and determine whether new approaches may be needed.

Most public service organizations will continue to fortify remote working for their employees over the coming months. IT teams should act on the feedback they receive from employees about collaboration and virtual communications tools and use this feedback to inform continuous improvements for remote workforces. This includes retrofitting decades-old policies and processes that mandate manual and in-person activities that can now be done leveraging technology solutions.

Continuity of many government operations also require solid supply chains as the lifelines for getting supplies to frontline workers and citizens in need. Government agencies have over recent months taken learnings from some of the best supply chain practices in the private sector. New technology tools that run simulations on the impact of disruptions on supply chains have helped predict where future shortages may arise and identify where alternate products are available. Those supply chains that have transformed in response to the pandemic are, by definition, more sustainable and better positioned to meet organizational and public needs going forward.

The Right Information

Over recent months, trusted information from government and health authorities about the pandemic has been a lifeline, informing citizens of what behaviors are expected and how to best protect themselves, their families and communities. COVID-19 has heightened people’s awareness of the role of public service in their daily lives. Citizens and businesses are more cognizant that there are certain things only government can do. They saw dramatic government action to protect public health, and now they are equally focused on the government role in supporting economic recovery.

Public service organizations must break through a great deal of noise, particularly misinformation online, to become the clear and undisputed source of facts on COVID-19 and public health matters in general. Staying abreast of public sentiment and understanding employee concerns is important if agencies are to develop a successful COVID-19 communications strategy. The more insights government agencies can glean from trusted data sources, the more confident and assured they can be in their communications in response to the pandemic and future crises.

The importance of government digging deeper to better understand citizen perspectives and perceptions should not be underestimated. Engaging in social media empowers government agencies to undertake conversations with their audiences, solicit citizen feedback on what’s working and what’s not and to build public trust. The most ingenious solutions may come from this great untapped human resource and the two-day dialogue can create powerful new bonds between citizens and agencies.

Monitoring and Reporting

Monitoring and reporting systems in use today are varied and range from advanced infectious disease surveillance to outbreak management systems. These systems are proving invaluable in fighting the pandemic by gathering and analysing data and transforming it into insights that inform agencies’ decisions and responses. Adding data sources provided by willing citizens, third-party sources and social media channels can help agencies predict potential infection pathways and where outbreaks may reoccur. Response teams can only succeed if they have access to accurate information to enable fast decision-making based on reliable data. After the pandemic, many agencies will continue to use the monitoring and reporting tools developed in response to the pandemic to improve preparedness for when and where the next public health emergency arises.

The Way Ahead

The pandemic has accelerated many service and digital transformations that were previously underway but often slow-moving in government. This is arguably among the few positive results of the crisis. Many capabilities built in response to COVID-19 will be embraced as standard practice going forward. Meeting the future needs of citizens, businesses and communities requires many government organizations to more aggressively harness the power of transformative technologies and become more data-driven to make lasting improvements in people’s lives.

Every nation’s circumstances and experience of the pandemic are unique. But we all have something in common. The virus is still among us, and strengthening preparedness for future disease-related disruptions is critical. This will take bold collaboration, tremendous flexibility and relentless innovation from across the public sector. What’s encouraging is that history, including in recent months, has taught us lessons in coexisting with threats to daily life and there are abundant opportunities to put those lessons to greater use as we advance into an uncharted era.

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