2020 Retrospective: Nowhere Left to Hide for Digital 'Have-Nots'

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The events of this year brought the realities of digital transformation into sharp relief: Public sector agencies are divided into “haves” and “have-nots”—and the “have-nots” cannot put off digital transformation any longer. 

At the beginning of 2020, I wrote about the need for agencies in the public sector to prioritize experience—for employees and constituents alike

Maybe in a normal year, a need for such a transformation could have been overlooked. Perhaps other needs would have taken priority or diverted attention elsewhere. 

Not this time. Not in this year. 

Digital transformation was already a growing requirement for agencies looking to better serve constituents—and looking to avert the public sector talent crisis. But in 2020, in our COVID-19 world, digital transformation became necessary to simply survive. 

Here are the top three lessons we learned in 2020 about being a digital “have”—and not a digital “have-not.” 

1. Digital capabilities will streamline and expand mission-critical services. 

From the beginning of the nation’s lockdowns and increased restrictions in early March, federal and state agencies were forced to quickly embrace (and, often, improve) their telework capabilities. Largely in-person workforces all had to go largely remote overnight. 

Take agencies such as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s IT Services Development and Operations Division, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General. Files on outdated equipment needed to be moved to cloud solutions. Physical records and resources needed to be digitized. New accountability processes needed to be implemented just to adjust to the new reality. 

However, on top of modernizing IT systems and ensuring operational continuity, another significant concern has arisen, according to the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee’s June report on COVID-19 challenges facing federal agencies: safeguarding systems against cyberattacks and insider threats. Widespread reliance on telework capabilities can oftentimes strain agency networks and require a shift in IT resources, providing additional opportunities and targets for bad actors. Are agencies prepared to take this challenge on today? Can they afford not to?

2. Data will point the way toward actionable insights. 

Comprehensive, detailed data can be a boon amidst any public emergency—whether you’re aiming to manage risk, make operational decisions or craft strong policy. Look at the hospitals and hospital systems that stood out during the early months of the pandemic. They were able to manage capacity and make better overall decisions because of data. Federal and state agencies must be prepared to take similar steps, whatever comes next. In other words, they must find ways to securely and ethically exchange information within their public sector ecosystems, to maximize collaboration and capitalize on data. 

Take New Zealand’s government, a shining example of public sector data-sharing from across the Pacific. The country changed its laws earlier in the decade to increase the sharing of data between agencies, resulting in long-term improvements in welfare outcomes for its citizens. Meanwhile, in 2020, calls in the U.S. for improved data-sharing efforts and infrastructure between public health agencies and the federal government to facilitate meaningful COVID-19 tracking have only grown louder

In August, public sector leaders told Oxford Economics that data sharing improves internal efficiencies and helps fill skill gaps. And as investment in new digital technologies increases—42% have invested in artificial intelligence over the past three years and 39% have invested in predictive analytics—effective data collection and analysis will only become more important. 

3. Employee and citizen experiences will close the gap with the public sector. 

Digital technology investments and data-sharing practices can pay off in many areas, including improving employee and citizen experiences. Naturally, embracing collaboration tools and flexible work policies creates a better employee experience. Digitizing elements of the hiring and onboarding process — as many government agencies have done during the pandemic — creates a better employee experience. Finally, and critically, a better employee experience always translates to one thing: a better citizen experience.

Public sector leaders in the above-mentioned Oxford Economics survey understand this importance. Over half (56%) say employee satisfaction has the greatest influence on organizational strategy. Over half (54%) say improving employee experience would advance their reputation as an industry leader. Still, only about one-fifth (22%) have completely executed decisions that would improve the employee experience, and just under half (48%) have restructured their organization to accommodate the way people actually live and work. 

Now must be the time agencies double down on improving employee and citizen experiences so that federal and state agencies can truly compete with the public sector, even once the pandemic subsides. 

The Digital Future 

The digital “haves” have naturally separated themselves from the digital “have-nots” during this dramatic adjustment period, by embracing new tools to drive productivity, shoring up against dangerous weaknesses, investing in data capabilities to drive short- and long-term efficiencies and cost savings, and focusing on improving employee and citizen experiences. 

The fastest way—and maybe the only way—for digital “have-nots” to catch up now is to look to cloud technologies. A move to the cloud typically offers a number of benefits, including faster, more precise decision-making, simpler interfaces and better collaboration, and enhanced overall security. The cloud enables innovation throughout the organization with scalable technology that drives ongoing flexibility and modernity—well into our world’s rapidly evolving future. 

If we’ve learned anything in 2020, it’s this: If digital “have-nots” don’t get proactive now, soon reacting may not even be a possibility. 

Brian Roach is managing director of U.S. Regulated Industries at SAP North America.

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