Taking control of the new normal

As Australia starts to move beyond the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty underpins many decisions, writes Dean Lacheca.

Dean Lacheca

With immediate conversations turning to the challenges of returning people to the workplace, the only certainty is that there are a lot of changes ahead for government departments and their workforces — both positive and negative.

Government leadership must avoid short-sighted reactive decision making to the immediate challenges and take a strategic approach to shaping their new normal.

Like many parts of the country and the economy, the impact of the pandemic on government departments and their services has been varied. Some services have seen a dramatic surge in demand, most significantly social and human. Some have seen dramatic channel shifts as citizens look to access government services through non-traditional channels.

While other government services or functions have stopped or drastically reduced, impacting government revenues and, in many cases, creating a pent-up demand in the community for them.

Every government department in every state and territory is experiencing the pandemic situation slightly differently. The result is that each department, as well as the services they deliver and the process or function they perform, are travelling a different path.

These paths are not just influenced by the pandemic itself, but by other factors such as the departments digital maturity prior to the crisis, the ecosystems they support and rely on, as well as the community’s expectations for their services.

Phases of recovery

Despite the different paths taken, each government department will go through the same three phases of the pandemic – respond, recover and renew.

Lockdown put government departments into the respond phase, where leaders assessed the immediate impacts and responded with short-term tactical decisions about the current business model and operating model.

From schools shifting to remote learning, to face-to-face social services meetings being replaced by video calls, each challenge was tackled with an agility not often associated with government. For many, this phase will continue for some time.

As others are starting to experience now, reopening moves government departments into the recover phase, which is also full of uncertainty and opportunity. This phase will be just as demanding and chaotic as the first, if not more so. The need to scale up to meet pent-up demand may be overwhelming for some departments, particularly those with customer-facing operations.

The reopening of society won’t occur as a single event. Although a natural normalcy bias makes us assume it will be a linear process, reopening could also be immediately followed by another lockdown if COVID-19 begins to spread again, or it could see isolated lockdowns only impacting a certain buildings or suburbs.

As larger employers in their own right, individual departments must navigate this period, leading by example as they protect their workforces, as well as the services they deliver and functions they perform. This will challenge them both operationally and financially.

Once we get to a more stable “new normal” environment, government departments will eventually move into the renew phase. The future starts to become more “plannable.” At that point, societies start to normalise. International trade relations resume and set new global trade patterns.

But the renew phase isn’t straight forward. Eventually all the recovery funding and stimulus spending will come to an end, forcing government services and functions into a state of new normal. Some departments may find themselves in this phase almost immediately, for others it will take years.

Shaping the new normal

In a rush to address pent-up demand or get everything “back on track,” tactical decisions made by governments risk re-institutionalising old practices and service delivery approaches. This could, in effect, set back digital transformation efforts by years.

Government departments can shape the new normal during the recover and renew phases. Though urgency and agility remain vital as governments enter the recover phase, they must pause and take the opportunity to effect lasting change.

In some cases, demand for particular services, channels or ways of working have gained momentum, while in others, citizen expectations have been redefined as historical barriers have been broken down. There are departments that have invented brand new services or ways of working, some of which may be temporary like the dedicated COVIDSafe app or chatbots, while others have the opportunity to become part of the new normal.

Government departments must determine which of these services, channels or ways of working they want to maintain as part of the new normal and work to scale them immediately. They must set new expectations of what normal looks like using the crisis as a breakpoint between the old and the new.

This same breakpoint creates an opportunity to change the service delivery model, so that demand is not only shifted to new channels or approaches when it starts up again, but demand for traditional channels is reduced, or in some cases, the traditional channels could be removed all together.

Bravery in the face of an uncertain future

It’s clear that government services, functions and ways of working will emerge differently from the pandemic. Some departments will see success as returning to the pre-pandemic normal. Others will see the pandemic as a great leap forward in their adoption of digital technologies, looking to make the most of changed attitudes. While others will be stuck in tactical response mode, dealing the fallout from the pandemic for quite some time.

The path of the pandemic and the decisions made by department leaders will impact government services and their workforces for many years to come. Departmental leaders must have foresight, plan actions and reprioritise strategic initiatives to positively influence the post-pandemic outcomes, even while uncertainty remains.

Dean Lacheca is a senior director analyst at Gartner, supporting public sector CIOS and technology leaders transition to digital government.

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