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Phase III: The essential role of government in response to COVID-19


September 8, 2020

August 31, 2020 marked the official six-month mark since we went into COVID-19 lockdown in my home state of Connecticut. Around that time, I published the first in a series of blogs that sought to break down government response efforts into logical and digestible phases to help leaders organize their approach. The Phase I immediate response was all about emergency management and business continuity. This phase started with providing advanced analytics to track the virus and predict where it was going next. In collaboration with our government partners, IBM helped launch the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium to help researchers everywhere better understand COVID-19 treatments and potential cures. This initial research has produced new insights into how the virus works.

Working alongside government leaders, we helped them move to models enabling case workers to provide critical services from home. We armed governments with tools to engage citizens directly, and virtual assistants to reduce the burden on contact centers. We supported remote learning. We helped keep the lights on, and even improve services in this uncertain and challenging environment.

Increased demand for protective measures

As spring turned to summer, many regions moved to Phase II with loosened restrictions, resulting in an increased demand for and focus on deploying protective measures (for example, contact tracing, return-to-workplace and exposure notification efforts) aimed at mitigating the spread of the virus while also enabling economies ravaged by the pandemic to reopen and begin to recover. IBM has been in the middle of these initiatives with tools and local resources to support our government partners.

Looking back at what I wrote earlier this year, however, I’m struck by how hopelessly naïve I was. Like many, I thought the path from response through recovery would be linear—one phase would lead to the next, and we would soon return to some semblance of normalcy. But we soon learned the path to recovery would be neither linear nor consistent across countries and regions.

While many regions have been largely successful in containing the virus and reopening their economies, others (including the US, Brazil, India, Mexico) remain in a reactive position as the virus continues to spread. Today, countries across the world vary in their phases of recovery. Some are responding to a resurgence of the virus by moving back toward an emergency response and tightening restrictions, while others are moving toward a new “normal.”

Importance of trust

A central theme has emerged in many of our conversations with government leaders from around the world during these unprecedented times. Namely, restoring and rebuilding the trust and confidence of citizens as an increasingly critical driver for government effectiveness. According to IBV consumer research, globally, less than 60 percent of citizens we surveyed believe the response actions taken by governments in response to the pandemic have been appropriate. And people are scared.

Two-thirds fear that lifting restrictions will result in another outbreak in their community, and nearly three out of four people are concerned about another wave of the virus hitting during the upcoming winter. Trust is an increasingly important issue that governments must face head on.

According to unpublished research from the IBV, in the US (which by many measures has seen the most widespread impact from the global pandemic) less than 40 percent of respondents trust public health officials and only 17 percent trust elected national leaders. And only slightly more than one in five people trust local and regional and elected leaders.

Leaders struggle to answer the question: What can we do to restore citizens’ confidence in our societal institutions broadly, whether that be in our retail supply chains, our healthcare systems, or our scientists? Perhaps more significantly, what must we do to restore trust and faith in our government systems and institutions—to protect and serve the public, to maintain the very stability of our society?

Continual reinvention and transformation in government

What has become clear is that we need to work together to transform how government operates. The pandemic and its health and economic impacts, have challenged and exposed rigid governance processes, and the seams and limitations in core government services. While industry has been working with governments on transformation and reinvention initiatives for decades, the simple truth is that transformation is no longer optional, or an extracurricular focus. It’s quickly becoming THE focus. And it’s not just governments. Leaders across industries say digital transformation is even more of a priority today (see Figure 1). We must re-imagine the business of government, and we must adapt fast.

Figure 1: Executives who assign high or very high priority to digital transformation (Source: IBM Institute for Business Value.)

Executive who assign high or very high priority to digital transformation

Leaders across the public sector must make the most of what they have, rethink the way they work, and find opportunities for efficiencies. And leaders must achieve this within an environment where processes can be difficult to change. What’s more, technology solutions are often not designed to work together, and security and privacy have been thought of after the fact, rather than as core elements to government solutions.

At the same time, many citizen services are supported by antiquated applications and infrastructure with increasing cost of maintenance, weakening security, and decreasing reliability. No agency will “serve citizens better” by maintaining the status quo. Effective agency and ministry leaders understand that engaging their constituents successfully is a function of resiliency, agility, data protection, and scale. This means adapting technologies that consumers experience elsewhere to work for government to deliver the secure transformation many know has been delayed for too long.

Technology solutions are key

In an environment of growing demands and limited resources, technology solutions can play a significant role in addressing today’s challenges while embracing opportunities for the future to enable—and realize—a new normal for governmental agencies and healthcare organizations. All this will allow them to be more agile, resilient, secure, and responsive to future threats.

Government leaders should focus on increasing engagement and improving access to services. Citizens today are more connected and empowered, with expectations of efficiency and transparency in their interactions with government agencies—just as they expect from their banks or retailers.

Access to new and unprecedented amounts of data is creating opportunity for deeper insights, more personalized service and ultimately more proactive care. Artificial intelligence (AI), data and cognitive systems can support a transition to personal-centered care across the continuum, empowering care providers, social services agencies, and families and citizens.

The State of California and Sonoma County, for example, are moving to help at-risk families, children in need, and the homeless. By pulling data from multiple departmental sources, breaking down department silos, using AI to identify patterns of risk, and then prioritizing collective efforts, they can support individuals with greater levels of personalization and care. Similar efforts are being deployed in Orange County, California and for the State of Louisiana’s Department of Health.

Unlock the value of data

Government leaders should unlock the value of their data and put it to work. The mission for recovery and resiliency—and to save people’s lives and livelihoods—begins with a modern and swift approach to deliver benefits, care, and cures. Organizational data that’s been secured, aggregated and analyzed generates meaningful insights that can lead to actionable results to improve care and services.

In a world where data is exponentially expanding, governments need the tools that will help securely store, collect and organize data, facilitate interoperability, and help you break down data silos across the enterprise.

Government leaders need to reimagine the business of government, digitally transform operations and modernize core systems. Government leaders live in a world where legacy systems, inefficient processes and siloed systems make it hard to pivot and respond in a crisis. Leaders need to react more quickly, deliver at lower costs, and improve the quality of services. They need capable, nimble systems and processes with sound structural resiliency and a modern approach to workflows, data, and security. Examples of how governments are successfully transforming include:

  • The National Health Services in the UK moved to enhance security services and support. This enabled them to predictably and precisely block would-be threats, and boost cybersecurity preparedness and resilience for the sake of patient care.
  • The New York Department of Social Services launched an online portal that allows clients to access services more readily and conveniently, improving the process of applying for supplemental food assistance.
  • Canada’s University Health Network (UHN) leveraged blockchain to create a new model for managing consent.

Governments, including the US Federal Government, are working to protect sensitive citizen and operational data, prevent advanced threats, combat fraud, and safeguard cloud and mobile access across the multiple devices that citizens and businesses use for services. In fact, the Australian Federal Government is doing that, and more.

It’s been a tough six months, but we at IBM have been proud and honored to work with government leaders around the world, not only in the initial emergency response and recovery phases of the pandemic, but also what lies beyond. Many leaders are now moving to reimagine government, and are emerging smarter, more flexible, and more resilient.

Emerging stronger, more resilient

We, as nations and citizens, have a long way to go, and there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us. But I remain optimistic. We’ve been here before. We have survived great turmoil. In just two decades, we have endured a global pandemic, a collapse of our global financial system, and too many global conflicts and tragedies to keep count. And each time we have emerged stronger and more resilient.

Today we’re armed with new and powerful technological capabilities that allow us to innovate in ways previously unimaginable. We have AI to support new intelligent workflows, flexible hybrid cloud architectures that will enable agility and business process orchestration, and tools to more securely engage the citizenry while protecting privacy. Each of these new capabilities are transformational in their own right. When we bring them together, an entirely new way of protecting and serving the citizenry is possible. The only failures are those of vision and courage. We are limited only by our imagination.

Let’s get to it.


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Meet the author

Tim Paydos

Tim Paydos
Vice President and General Manager, Government, IBM


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