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COVID-19 Phase III—Process innovation and agility to emerge stronger and more resilient


November 16, 2021

Over the past several months, we have shared a series of articles—from building a robust analytic foundation for increasing situational awareness to transforming digital citizen services—focused on how governments can emerge stronger and more resilient from the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we focus on process innovation and agility.

The pandemic has forced nearly every organization to change the way that it works. In some cases, organizations have had to completely reinvent their operating models to continue delivering mission-critical services. Some government agencies faced massive workload increases and had to address huge increases in demand for services. They faced this challenge even as their own workforces were directed to leave government facilities and work remotely.

Initially, things went poorly and many government systems designed to provide critical services crashed. After this stuttering start, many leaders used digital technology to make significant strides in resolving delivery issues. Some became agile. They cut cycle times, reduced costs, and improved services. They deployed new capabilities in weeks, not months or years.

Digital engagement across all industries jumped ahead by years during COVID-19, and government was no exception. Research from the IBM Institute for Business Value found that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital transformation at 59% of surveyed organizations. Similarly, over half of government executives surveyed said digital transformation was a priority.

Focusing on agility and redesigning workflows

Embracing the new urgency to harness technology, leading governments scaled to meet demand, delivered entirely new services, and supported new ways of working.

At Social Security Scotland, a social program management platform underlies user-centered, agile transformation. More than 2,400 citizens, civil servants, and non-profits collaborated to build a single case management platform for social benefits. Over the course of 2 years, 7 social programs were deployed on the platform designed to ultimately deliver benefits to about 1.8 million people. The cloud-based platform integrates a variety of technologies to deliver a virtually seamless citizen experience. It scales up and down to meet demand and eliminates the ongoing expense of purchasing, housing, and maintaining an on-premises infrastructure for these programs.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs applied process automation and intelligent workflows to help improve citizen service and cut costs associated with manual, paper-driven processes. The Department uses AI and process automation to digitize incoming benefits packages and correspondence, cutting processing times from 5 to 60 days to hours. Within just 8 months, 200  people handling piles of paper were retrained for new positions. 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.

Tapping into modern technologies on the transformation journey

Looking ahead, government transformation and continued investment in modernization initiatives will remain imperatives. IDC reports that, for both public and private sector organizations, customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, and innovation are the three top focus areas for the future. By building on lessons learned from the COVID-19 response, governments can continue to cost-effectively improve service delivery.

During the height of the pandemic, the most successful governments identified critical priorities and rolled up their sleeves to focus on core issues. They commissioned 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.

Many organizations also discovered that low-code platforms can provide the agility to quickly deploy new capabilities and minimum viable products (MVPs). These platforms also can enable fast iteration and rapid deployment of new functionality beyond MVPs. They are transforming citizen engagement, internal processes, and transactions across the ecosystem.

Cloud computing has also proven to cost-effectively support the pace required for progress. Cloud servers and resources can be added in minutes—far faster than deploying new hardware on premises. That speed and associated scalability can deliver cost efficiencies. Users pay for what they need when they need it and can avoid purchasing, maintaining, and managing equipment in a data center.

But cloud is only part of the answer. Governments are complex enterprises and successfully run technologies that are decades old. They maintain large amounts of their own technology while also buying services and solutions that cross many different clouds. This has generated increasingly complex and diverse technical environments. Governments need to cost-effectively manage that infrastructure without creating new ranks of specialized IT operations teams. It can be done, using new technologies that make it possible to run workloads across multiple clouds and government data centers from “a true single pane of glass.”  

Maintaining momentum and moving forward with purpose

The pandemic has provided a massive stress test for business and operating models, new technologies, and agile deployment methods. In confronting this generational challenge, leaders around the world have found ways to improve citizen services, streamline processes, and even reduce back-office costs. They have demonstrated the power of technology to boost government performance and meet unprecedented demands for services and benefits. They have crafted road maps of success and foundations for sustainable improvement. Governments must persist and build on this momentum to continue transforming operations to enrich citizen services.

While there have been many positive lessons, some governments have experienced unsettling new challenges, such as expanding complexity, security gaps, and a sense of loss of control. All of these can be addressed. We encourage you to contact us (Paul Dommel and  Mike Stone) directly to discuss and learn more.


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Meet the authors

Paul A. Dommel

Paul A. Dommel
Global Director for Public Service, IBM


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Mike Stone

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


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