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COVID-19 Phase III—Digital citizen services to emerge stronger and more resilient


October 22, 2021

In many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the long-present and wide gap in service quality between the private and public sectors. Governments suddenly faced enormous pressures on some services. For example, as many as 1 in 4 workers—more than 46 million people—received a form of unemployment insurance.

System failures across the US and countries around the world were common. After a crush of newly jobless residents overwhelmed Florida’s online and phone systems, citizens lined up to obtain paper applications for unemployment benefits. Australia and other countries experienced similar hardships. Many people had never filed for unemployment benefits or interacted with unemployment insurance systems or processes. Few were impressed.

Both private and government organizations had to adapt—and quickly. Research from the IBM Institute for Business Value found that the pandemic accelerated digital transformation at 59% of surveyed organizations. Similarly, given the pandemic’s impact on government, just over half of government executives surveyed said digital transformation was a priority.

Although their initial response was slow, many public sector organizations made significant strides to resolve service issues. Numerous governments achieved years of changes in months. Leaders identified new ways to educate students and shift work from offices to homes. Administrations implemented massive changes in process and technology to scale up and meet unprecedented demand for social benefits services. Skyrocketing fraud added to the challenges, but investigations and counter-fraud solutions have led to hundreds of indictments and convictions.   

Digital engagement across all industries jumped ahead by years during COVID-19, and government was no exception. Governments need to build on this progress to cost-effectively improve service delivery going forward. By capturing lessons learned, they can continue their advancements to drive further impact.

Innovating with modern technology to meet citizen need. 

Embracing the new urgency to harness technology, leading governments scaled to meet demand, delivered entirely new services, and supported new ways of working. For example, governments across the globe set up AI-powered virtual assistants to answer millions of questions per day. Some agencies went even further and used the technology to seamlessly conduct transactions like scheduling appointments, paying for licenses, or even processing paper benefit applications. This approach can not only improve citizen service, but, according to Gartner, effective self-service channels can be 80 to 100 times less costly than time-consuming live interactions. 

The US Department of Veterans Affairs applied process automation and intelligent workflows to help improve citizen service and cut administrative costs associated with manual, paper-driven processes. The Department used AI and process automation to digitize incoming benefits packages and correspondence, cutting processing time from 5 to 60 days to hours. Within just 8 months, 200 people handling piles of paper were retrained for new positions. Improvements continued and the Department began to use a similar solution to speed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request processes. While modern technology played a huge role, these changes were underpinned by a fundamental culture shift that embraced innovation. Innovation was a must. There was no other way.

Keep moving forward with lessons learned

Not every new system deployed during the pandemic was a success. In fact, some vaccine scheduling tools were considered difficult to use. What’s more, many citizens lacked access to broadband internet and were not able to easily get into these systems.

The more successful governments identified critical priorities and rolled up their sleeves to build resilient solutions. They created diverse teams of people from across their organizations and communities to define issues and opportunities for improvement. They used Design Thinking to focus on end users and develop solutions that people would adopt. They kept things simple, often eliminating steps that should not exist. Finally, they teamed with technology partners that brought insights, experience, and tools for the journey.

The transformation imperative and need for continued investments is not over. In fact, leaders in both government and the private sector are continuing to focus on customer experiences and efficiency. IDC reports that the top 3 focus areas for the future, for all organizations, are customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, and innovation.

Yet, as governments have become more comfortable with transformation at pace, some have experienced unsettling new challenges: security gaps, expanding complexity, and a sense of losing control. All of these can be addressed. Disciplined approaches can drive fast results and address important considerations for long-term success. We will be writing more on these themes over the next several months.

We encourage you to contact us (Paul Dommel, Nick Holmes, and Mike Stone) directly to learn more. Although we can’t predict the future, we can forge a path forward that is productive, improves the lives of taxpayers, and can be more secure for all of us.


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Meet the authors

Paul A. Dommel

Paul A. Dommel
Global Director for Public Service, IBM


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Nicholas Holmes

Nicholas Holmes
CTO – Global Government Data and AI, IBM


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Mike Stone

Mike Stone
Global Managing Director, Public Sector, Healthcare and Life Sciences, IBM


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