Last year’s global pandemic changed the world we live in in a profound way. Personal, societal, professional implications of this challenging period have marked us all and will continue to define our days in the immediate future.
When we reflect on the dynamics imposed by this situation on the public sector, one of the most striking elements we see is an accelerated pace of digital transformation at all levels of operations for the design and delivery of public services.
In effect, the critical situation faced during 2020-2021 obliged governments to put aside the contained – and uneven- pace of digital advances shown during the last decade, and pushed the accelerator on large scale digital innovations:
“Since the (COVID-19) crisis has put public services under stress, governments are urged to deploy effective digital technologies (…). The crisis has exposed the need for government leadership in the development and adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics to ensure an effective provision of public services.” United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Policy Brief #61.
With a global pandemic amongst us, digital government became a MUST. The basic advantages it offers in terms of adapting quickly, providing services efficiently, being able to scale and to grow in the most cost effective-manner, ensuring transparency in all processes, became VITAL to respond to ongoing growing needs.
The possibilities (and now realities) of virtual education, virtual justice, virtual public services, telework and telehealth were generally embraced at vertiginous speed. Challenges related to the creation of an advanced digital infrastructure (enabling secure cloud and communication solutions), a digital fluent workforce (enhancing digital literacy of public servants) and citizen connectivity (to guarantee that citizens can access such virtual services), were addressed and dealt with.
This phenomenon brings some certainties: the speed, scope and ambition of all these changes will set the basis for new digital government possibilities for years to come, having provided solutions that could potentially remain the norm after the pandemic ends. But it also brings important questions:
- Is this accelerated pace of change going to be sustainable?
- Can governments ensure that all citizens have access to virtual services?
And, from an international development perspective and acknowledging the diversity of the public sector within a global context,
- Are all the governments at global level leveraging these advancements and committing to them?
- Has this unforeseen transformation increased or reduced the digital government gap between developing and developed countries?
- What can the public sector learn from the private sector’s response to the accelerated digital transformation?