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For the federal government, COVID-19 is as much a barrier-breaker as it is a digital strategy reset.

The lockdown period busted historical, cultural and technological barriers to change. Practices and processes had to be altered, and new channels for engagement established, because there was often no other choice.

This is a common picture across a lot of industry sectors, as is the follow-on question of: where does the government go next?

Gartner’s public sector and government research director Dean Lacheca believes the federal government will move in one of two ways.

“There is an overwhelming desire for government, as an entity, to be seen to be ‘getting back to normal’: wanting to demonstrate that things are coming back online, services and capabilities are scaling back up, and being seen to be back in business,” Lacheca says.

The other post-COVID outcome would be to take what was learned from the period and embrace it as a new standard way of operating.

“Just about every government CIO that we talk to has basically said, ‘This has been an accelerator'. Things that we could never have got stood up in years of work have really been compressed into a really short timeframe,” Lacheca says.

For example, governments used the lockdown period to stand up new (video) service channels and tools that would not previously have been given the time of day.

“With the new channels that they opened, the big unknown is if the government is going to shut them down [again], and will they shut them down because they can't sustain them or because they want to be seen to get people and direct them back to the way of working from 2019?” Lacheca says.

“There are decisions ahead. Some of those decisions are going to be more influenced by political messaging than they are about technical capability.”

Martin Stewart-Weeks, co-author of the book, Are we there yet? The digital transformation of government and the public sector in Australia, agrees. “Are we going to bounce back from this emergency or are we going to bounce forward?” Stewart-Weeks put to a recent government forum.

“By that I mean, are we going to use this emergency to find really quite different ways of working and cement and solidify some of the great breakthroughs that we've had in terms of the way we experiment, the way we innovate and the way we make change happen?

“Or are we going to as soon as we can go back to something more familiar and some of the ways that we were becoming so familiar with just only a few weeks [or months] ago.”

The case to maintain new channels and capabilities is likely to be influenced by how the COVID-19 situation evolves as restrictions ease.

Rather than being done with the virus altogether, Lacheca believes clusters could re-emerge that force the government to cycle channels and new ways of working on and off for a period of time.

“The likelihood is that we'll go through a yo-yo effect where maybe we don't go to full lockdown, but what if I lose an entire government building? What if I lose an entire service area or a contact centre?” Lacheca says.

“Even though I'm trying to get back to normal, remote work could be back in play for my entire floor or my entire office next week. I could be in lockdown next week and I need to still keep my functions going.

“So there is an extended period of uncertainty. Even though they may feel like they're getting back to normal, they have to be ready to pivot again in case a localised lockdown changes their plans. That's going to be a big challenge for government service delivery in the next 18 months.”

“There's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of genuine and quite legitimate fear and a sense of trepidation about where all of this is leading us, how long it's going to take [to recover] and all the rest of it,” Stewart-Weeks agrees.

“We are also in a period where the emergency seems to be trumping everything - if in doubt, get it done because things are urgent and we're under great pressure.

“The emergency is getting a lot of things changed. I think that's a good thing, but it can also be a risky thing.”

What could swing the government in one direction rather than the other - specifically, a return to pre-COVID operations, rather than the embrace of newer ways of work - is the risk of getting the latter wrong.

During COVID lockdowns, it was perhaps easier to take an Agile or flexible approach to technological and policy development, knowing it was most important to stand up a capability or service, and that there would be time later to adapt it to meet existing frameworks and controls.

While this was a good strategy - enabling the government to achieve customer experience outcomes at speed - retroactively wrapping rules and controls around these capabilities could be seen as a reimposition of unwanted government bureaucracy on otherwise flexible processes, even if that is not the case.

“The roadblock for government is the consequence of getting it wrong,” Lacheca says.

“[If it goes wrong] it becomes a political football, hence they're more nervous to do things upfront and that then takes us back into traditional approaches where everything takes a lot longer than it possibly could.”

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