In the past few years, rapid innovation has normalized technologies that would have astonished even Isaac Asimov. Machine learning, autonomous drones, gene splicing, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence went from imagination to commercially viable as soon as the infrastructure and hardware were ready.
If technology has transformed the limitations of what is physically possible, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed how we imagine it. The economy has made an evolutionary shift. The economic system is repurposing itself to become more cloud-based, delivery operated, and decentralized. The changes economic soothsayers predicted for the not-so-distant future have rushed, messily and painfully, into the immediate present. Governments have access to the same technology. They have the same imperative to evolve so they can successfully deliver on their mission in a changing world. This is about more than simply adopting new technologies in government—it is new technology enabling fundamentally new ideas about how government can deliver services and programs.
The progress emerging from the Fourth Industrial Revolution has not been incremental; progress has multiplied. Neural networks for Artificial Intelligence (AI) are a product of cloud computing and massive data collection, for example. To take advantage of this multiplier effect of technology, the public sector will need to adopt new approaches. Here are five key shifts that will enable government to succeed in the post-COVID era:
Fast-paced technology and an interconnected economy demand an adaptive government. The slow pace of waterfall development should yield to the constant and quick revisions of an agile approach. Talent should move swiftly between projects, and policy should nimbly adjust to new challenges and opportunities. At the dawn of the COVID-19 epidemic, a quick change to increasing unemployment benefits and stimulus payments kept the pandemic from turning into an eviction and homelessness epidemic as well.
The COVID-19 crisis has also offered a number of examples of governments displaying agility with workforce management—reassigning workers to overloaded areas such as healthcare and employment, relaxing hiring regulations, and using the full force of digital technology to adapt to virtual workspaces. Swiftly changing conditions will require similarly swift action.
Leaders should strive to accomplish their missions now while setting up for the future. We shouldn’t limit modernization to occasions when someone has time and budget or when a crisis or scandal forces an overhaul. Growth and preparation for the future should be an ongoing process, even as realizing goals in the present keeps the mission afloat. In this vein, the Biden administration’s focus on modernizing government IT, including the recent proposal for $9 billion for the Technology Modernization Fund—a 3,600% increase over the $25 million it received in fiscal year 2020—is a welcome development.
Meanwhile, anticipatory government helps shift the focus from cleaning up problems to preventing them. Data analytics, AI, scenario planning, and digital twin simulations all can enable governments to target likely problems before they erupt. For example, using robust data sets and social determinants of health, government can target services and interventions to those families most likely to be impacted by the opioid crisis or veterans most likely to face housing insecurity before they are on the streets.
Modern technologies grow by multiplying in conjunction with each other, and so should ideas. Government agencies should accept good ideas both from within and outside the organization and share information and datasets that outside forces can use to inform discovery. Governments need dedicated structures for engaging external ecosystems, and to embrace ideas and procurement from a diverse range of providers.
As COVID-19 emerged, governments, citizens, the scientific community, and private sector came together in rapidly formed ecosystems to find solutions. Ecosystem thinking helped governments circumvent traditional supply chains to quickly access health products, public data sets enabled academia to build useful public health dashboards, and logistic- and entertainment-management companies are collaborating on mass vaccination sites.
We learn it when driving: Focus on the distant point, and you’ll ride more smoothly along the way. Whether citizen users or employees, all public-sector projects serve a human in the end. Research and satisfaction studies can help agencies to never lose sight of that primary end user. User Experience Design has served technology projects for ages. The same concept—putting humans first—should form the gravitational center of public-sector work. Rather than having programs that support families and communities after a natural disaster siloed by department, funding, and regulation, reorient the lens to how the disaster victim experiences that life-changing event and the rebuilding process.
Governments can also focus on making citizen participation more meaningful and move them up the “ladder of participation.” This means moving citizen participation from simple activities like information sharing, voting, consultation, and community involvement to large-scale participation in decision-making.
Technology needs to entwine with an initiative’s DNA. Projects should begin with a grounding in technical possibility and scientific reality. Public-sector leaders should have someone out ahead, searching for technologies and ideas that can power the future, so that public institutions have time to prepare. Commercial technology can be “spun in” to augment public-sector work.
Whether or not governments commit to transformation, a changing world demands change. Cybercriminals have already hijacked everything from cars to kitchen appliances. Drones have been used to commit crimes. And as cyber breaches show, the massive amounts of data that governments and companies collect can be like toxic waste, a temporarily valuable asset that can transform into a lifetime of liability. Cyber security is not the responsibility of the IT team in the basement but is integral to the design of operations and ultimate success of the mission.
This pandemic has proven transformative. So has this technological moment. To keep serving citizens, governments will have to adapt and transform. Transformation will require collaboration outside of individual agencies and departments, and collaboration among disparate jurisdictions with similar technological needs.
Leadership should be unafraid to dream of creative possibilities and to welcome undreamt-of creations. New approaches will be needed to address maturing problems and evolving missions: being adaptive, two-geared, open, human-centered, and tech instinctive. With these paradigm shifts, government can evolve to keep up with a world that, at times, seems to be racing away from all of us.
Mike Canning, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP, leads Deloitte’s Government & Public Services (GPS) industry. William D. Eggers is the Executive Director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights. Their most recent publication is “Creating the government of the future: Uncovering the building blocks of change to become more anticipatory, human-centered, and resilient.”