Governments embrace innovation to empower citizens in the fight against the pandemic

  • The pandemic’s impact on government
  • Challenging times call for remarkable innovations
  • Visions and predictions for the government sector
  • Closing thoughts

The corona crisis has put public services under a lot of strain and governments around the world are increasingly making use of digital technologies to contain the outbreak. And while many innovative solutions have originated from the private sector, the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of effective, accountable and inclusive government leadership in the development and implementation of new technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), to ensure the efficient provision of public services.

The pandemic’s impact on government

When the novel coronavirus first appeared and started spreading across the world, the biggest responsibility for stopping its advance fell into the hands of the government. To this end, governments worldwide implemented lockdowns and other containment measures. While those did save many lives, they also initiated a major economic crisis, one of the worst the world has ever experienced. This put even more pressure on governments to adopt measures to address the economic and fiscal consequences of the crisis, such as increased investment in healthcare and other public services, broadband networks, and innovative production methods, as well as strengthening of links between urban and rural areas, and diversification of e-government services. And while these measures were necessary to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, they also led to a major increase in public debt.

The pandemic has also significantly accelerated the adoption of digital technology within the government sector. Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI) and YouGov recently conducted a study, which revealed that 62 per cent of respondents claim that the use of digital technology in their health and social services (HSS) organisations has increased since the start of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the growing implementation of innovative solutions like mobile applications, AI-powered chatbots, video consultations, and information portals has resulted in increased quality of experience, staff productivity, and access to healthcare. What’s more, citizens themselves were rather open to the idea of governments collecting their data, provided they were responsible and transparent about its use, of course.

Challenging times call for remarkable innovations

To address the numerous health, economic, and social challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, governments around the world were forced to embrace innovation and launch their own digital initiatives.

Milan goes mobile-first

When the crisis struck, the city of Milan decided to move many of its services to digital in order to keep assisting its citizens. For instance, residents can now access the Digital Citizen Folder (a private and secure digital repository that stores personal documents for all citizens) through an app, which allows them to pay bills, manage their municipal services, and apply for licences online. “We accelerated to move this service from the website to an app because we understood that not all citizens have a strong [Internet] connection or an up-to-date device but they all have in their pockets a mobile phone,” explains Roberta Cocco, deputy mayor for Digital Transformation for the city of Milan. “Our focus was to move as many services as possible, ready to be connected and used through mobile.” The city also launched a WhatsApp chatbot to provide instant answers to any common questions citizens might have. “The value of these digital examples is that we do not have to be too complicated. WhatsApp is something that most people know and can use so this is the right way to reach a population,” adds Cocco.

AI-powered government

The US Department of Health and Human Services is increasingly using artificial intelligence technology to streamline its operations. For instance, they are feeding procurement data through machine learning algorithms to identify opportunities for cost savings, reduce buying time, design better contracts, and make the spending process more transparent. “There are numerous benefits in using AI to glean insights into data; descriptive analysis allows for better presentation of the data and can identify gaps and anomalies. Furthermore, it provides transparency and visibility that provides better overall service delivery,” says Oki Mek, senior advisor to HHS CIO. The Singapore government, on the other hand, is using AI and machine learning to analyse human resources and finance data, process procurement requests, identify patterns that point to corruption, and categorise skills needed for specific positions.

Blockchain-based voting system

The Russian startup Polys has developed a blockchain-based voting system that can help governments significantly reduce the risk of voting fraud. It allows citizens to cast their votes anonymously using smart cards or mobile devices, making it suitable for both online voting and voting at meetings. “Paper voting is expensive, slow and easy to manipulate. Going digital can make voting safer and more reliable. Distributed technologies improve speed and reduce administrative cost,” explains Alexander Sazonov, project lead at Polys. “Digital voting can be anonymous and more transparent at the same time. A system can confirm and protect voters’ identities, as well as letting those governing elections – and independent observers – review and check the results.” The system is already widely used among Russian universities and it has also been employed by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation and the Volgograd region in southern Russia.

Visions and predictions for the government sector

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digitalisation in the government sector. “Digital transfers enable governments to get support to people in need, crowdfunding platforms have mobilised funds for medical supplies and emergency relief, and algorithmic lending means small businesses have quicker access to funds,” explains Achim Steiner, administrator of UNDP and co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on Digital Finance. “The speed of the recent spread of these technologies is astonishing, but progress is not automatic. For digitalisation to be a true force for delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals, technological advances must combine with sound policy that empowers citizens and enables our financial system to meet the urgent investment challenges that must be overcome to build forward better.”

A similar view is shared by Maria Ramos, another co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on Digital Finance, who says that the pandemic presents “a historic opportunity to accelerate and expand the transformative impact of digitalisation.” According to Ramos, “In particular, digital finance, which in this crisis became the lifeline for millions across the world, extends the boundaries of financial inclusion by empowering citizens as savers, investors, borrowers, lenders and tax-payers in a way that gives them choice and power over their money.” For Gordon Heap, general manager of the Singapore Public Sector at DXC Technology, it’s not digital finance but digital identity that should be top priority for governments. “There is a great opportunity to be considered by merging physical and virtual identities, and ultimately just needing the one digital identity,” says Heap. “If we implement this effectively, as a national initiative, and ultimately an international initiative, then the application of this identity permeates every interaction of our life.”

Bill Finnerty, senior director analyst at Gartner, is particularly enthusiastic about the role digital twin technology will play in the future of the government sector. “In the short term, governments should identify a specific proof of concept of a digital twin,” says Finnerty. “In the midterm, governments will use digital twins for automated command-and-control operations that will require fewer staff to respond to incidents. Over time, digital twins will be used to test scenarios related to policy and legislation. That’s when this technology becomes truly transformative.”

Closing thoughts

In the midst of the pandemic, citizens across the world have looked to their governments for the protection of lives as well as livelihoods. This has put public policy and service delivery under incredible pressure, forcing governments to turn toward digital technologies to respond to the crisis and reinvent existing policies and systems. Navigating through these challenging times requires governments to fast track the implementation of digital communication channels to provide reliable updates on pandemic developments and share other important information. Governments will also need to accelerate and scale the implementation of AI-powered technology, blockchain, and mobile services, to ensure the future resilience of public service delivery. Technological innovations, however, need to be combined with sound policy so that citizens can be empowered and protected, and our financial systems can meet the inevitable post-pandemic investment challenges that lie ahead. 

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