The Pandemic May Be the Catalyst for the Digital Government We All Want


As citizens clamor for more online government services, they’re equally and rightfully clear on the need for strong security.

Everyone is feeling the frustration and fear as the pandemic stretches on (and on and on).

Despite the collective hope that 2020 would be it, and 2021 would represent an immediate shift back to normal, data suggests the pandemic’s projected impact may extend into second half of next year.

For government, that means serving a citizen base that’s grappling with real public health concerns, rising unemployment and ongoing economic uncertainty. It also means the time to accelerate digital transformation—as industry is doing—is now.

At almost every level, government faces a big uphill battle. As citizen demand surged by 18%, satisfaction with government services plunged 13%. Government IT leaders are invested and excited by the digital transformation they know will result in a true government on-demand model that would address many of these issues and make their own lives easier. Today, however, many remain hamstrung by outdated legacy systems and paper-heavy, manual processes that don’t fly in the age of the online consumer. 

Led by the Center for Digital Government, we surveyed 2,000 U.S. citizens in the early stages of the pandemic in March and then again in August. What we learned may point the way for a digital government that could realistically arrive sooner than expected.

The Gaps Made Plain 

People’s rising dissatisfaction with digital government services is not surprising. The pandemic took the in-person option for routine citizen services off the table—significantly limiting or even eliminating face-to-face interactions at the district court, the DMV, the unemployment office. Out of necessity, citizens were then funneled toward channels that simply weren’t built for the incredible influx of demand: websites, social media and phone calls.

As a result, frustration with slow response times, no online option, excessive forms and lack of personalized services doubled. The percentage of people who reported they weren’t having any issues with services at the start of the pandemic (52%) dropped 21% five months later as problems increased. People also reported rising frustration with overly complex processes (up 6%) and customer service issues (up 2%). These are clear areas of opportunity for local, state and federal agencies.

Citizens Are Strongly Supportive of Digital Government

An astounding 60% of those surveyed approved of the government experimenting with digital technologies. Almost 40% want these services to be easier to use. Almost a third say they want to access even more services online. Taken collectively, it’s a considerable swelling of support that could provide government technology leaders with additional cover and incentive as they press for the acceleration of digital transformation initiatives. That’s important. As with the public sector, consumer demand is influential. It matters.

Security Must Be a Front-and-Center Component 

Even as citizens clamor for more online government services, they’re equally and rightfully clear on the need for strong security. About 70% say data security is very important—and protecting citizen data was the first priority of those surveyed in both March and August. They’re right to be concerned: the FBI’s Cyber division has said reports of cyberattacks are up 400% over pre-pandemic levels. That security is a critical part of the digital transformation path, in order to protect citizen data and to preserve citizen confidence in the government’s ability to deliver an effective, safeguarded experience.

So what’s the way forward? Perhaps it’s first accepting the time horizon for the implementation of government on demand has collapsed from years to months, as is true of the private sector’s digital transformation plans as well. Government agencies can no longer afford to wait to slowly implement plans to digitize and automate. Citizen preference for online government services is very clear: in March, 54% said they preferred in-person services and by August, it was 16%, with 67% stating they preferred online.

Paper-based information must be digitized so it can be shared, stored and protected to improve the speed of service delivery. That’s real work: 58% of constituent-facing processes and 46% of back-office processes are still reliant on paper, according to IDC. Yet there are substantial efficiency gains and taxpayer cost savings that make this digital path both attractive and practical: for example, putting more than 400 paper forms online for the Pennsylvania Department of Health resulted in a 90% reduction in turnaround time and 80 staff hours saved per month. 

Finally, it’s thinking creatively about the service delivery channels. More than 80% of citizens want to access services from a laptop but the reality is a multi-channel approach will be required to ensure consistent access for all. That means focusing on building and deploying easy-to-use mobile apps, as well as smartly placed, simple self-serve kiosks for high-volume services. 

Government leaders have consistently gone to bat for innovative approaches to citizen services. Perhaps one of the pandemic’s very few bright spots is that the value and the urgency of a digital approach to government services have been reinforced for citizens and for decision-makers alike.

Joanne Collins Smee is Xerox’s Chief Commercial, SMB and Channels Officers. Before joining Xerox, she led Technology Transformation Services for the U.S. federal government.