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Governments and Covid-19: The Race to Digitalization

Posted on
03 December 2022
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4 minutes
Digital Government
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Covid-19 has drastically upended our way of life and how we work. It has been more than a year into the pandemic. Some vaccine trials have produced promising results, boosting hopes that we are turning a corner on this global crisis. In the meantime, consumer behaviours and business practices have moved online in order to adapt. E-commerce is booming and remote working, once more uncommon in the past, has become the new normal.  

Governments around the world have also followed suit to digitalise. Countries such as Germany, India and Singapore have adopted video conferencing tools for virtual court hearings. Elsewhere in the world, virtual inspections are now being conducted by building inspectors in United States and by customs officials in China. These changes in government processes are expected to be long-lasting while the pandemic is ongoing.  

Embracing digitalization or be left behind

Governments that have yet to embrace digitalization face letting down their stakeholders – the key being their citizens and businesses. Enforced social distancing and lockdowns have reduced citizen access to essential government services, especially if these services are unavailable online. Even if government services are available online, unprepared agencies can easily be overwhelmed by a large surge of new users. When citizens feel that the government is ill-equipped to help them, particularly during this unprecedented crisis, citizen satisfaction takes a hit. When digitalization is done right, it ensures that citizens are able to access essential services regardless of time and place. It provides a great opportunity for governments to maintain or even enhance their relationships with citizens and businesses despite the physical distance.  

On top of managing their citizens, governments have to manage their employees. Governments need to ensure that their employees who are working remotely have access to the necessary tools and resources to work effectively. For countries with predominantly paper-based processes, this could be challenging to handle. In addition, there is increased pressure on internal IT departments to serve these geographically dispersed employees with existing resources and infrastructure. Beyond hardware, governments also have to be able to manage their remote employees’ productivity and success.

For governments seeking to attract foreign investment, not digitalizing means being displaced by more agile and innovative countries that can better meet investor needs. Travel restrictions and closed borders prevent foreign investors from physically visiting. Governments that make it easy for foreign investors to digitally set up businesses will naturally attract a larger proportion of investment. Many governments are cutting taxes or increasing financial aid to citizens to mitigate the economic fallout from Covid-19. Any foreign investment to stimulate the local economy or create domestic employment would be very welcome.

Turbulent times provide many digitalization opportunities

Prepared governments are seizing this opportunity to think beyond this crisis. For instance, in spite of the economic downturn, countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia are boosting spending on information and communication technology to accelerate its digitalization push. A good by-product is that it signals to the private sector of the importance of digitalization in riding out this crisis and beyond.

A promising area is the utility of rapidly developed Covid-19 digital tools and how it can be expanded in a post-pandemic world. Many governments launched Covid-19 risk assessment AI chatbots in the early stages of the pandemic. These can be scaled up to handle other simple tasks such as appointment scheduling and reminders in the public healthcare sector. Another potential application could be repurposing Covid-19 information portals to digital employment hubs providing job opportunities and other information to citizens. Digitalization helps governments gain information visibility as well as other data sharing and analysis opportunities.  

Digitalization is a great opportunity for governments to improve their countries’ standing as tech leaders on the global stage. One example is how the Taiwanese government swiftly built a mask-rationing system on top of its national health insurance system. It then released this data via an open API, collaborating with civic hackers to use this data to build over 140 apps, including maps and voice assistants. Taiwan’s achievement of reaching 200 days without a locally transmitted case in October 2020 makes it the envy of the world.

For governments yet to fully embrace digitalization, cost is likely to be one of the most important considerations holding them back. During this pandemic, public resources are naturally being diverted to other more immediate concerns such as economic assistance and healthcare. Governments may be hard-pressed to justify spending money on tech projects. In fact, digitalization can help governments alleviate these concerns. For example, a digital business registry helps governments render targeted economic assistance by identifying small business owners and distributing business grants or waiving fees. It also helps to flatten the curve by reducing the need for face-to-face counter services.  

The pandemic, no matter how protracted, will eventually come to an end. The lesson we have all learnt is to prepare for the unpredictable. Digitalization is one way governments can help to insulate citizens against the adverse effects of future crises. Digitalization ensures that public services remain online and accessible, so citizens and businesses can still maintain some degree of stability during volatile periods.  

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