New Zealand’s Ministry of Home Affairs has helped small businesses thrive during the pandemic by funding digital skills training. Photo courtesy of Travel Baker County via Flickr
From tracking apps to continent-wide collaboration, public and civil services around the world have responded to the coronavirus pandemic with a range of impressive new tools and approaches
Faced with an unprecedented public health emergency, officials rushed to protect citizens and the economy from the effects of COVID-19, delivering new services and expanding existing ones at a pace believed to be previously not possible.
Here, senior civil servants from six countries tell World Government Forum what they consider to be the most impressive project related to pandemic response and recovery.
Estonia welcomes EU digital COVID certificate
For me, the biggest COVID-related innovation has to be the introduction of the EU-wide digital COVID certificate. What we are witnessing is a significant achievement in building an international network of trust on a topic that has the potential to divide rather than unite. Yet, we have managed to come together and clearly state that we trust each other, the doctors of other members and the certificates they provide. As a result, we have created the key to reversing the effects of the initial distrust of COVID-19 between states and we come back stronger than ever. Hopefully we will soon see new developments of a global digital vaccination passport replacing the yellow passport that intercontinental travelers have been forced to carry.
Taimar Peterkop, State Secretary, Estonia
Inter-jurisdictional collaboration in Australia
One of the most successful responses Australia has initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the creation of the National Cabinet. The National Cabinet brought together the leaders of each Australian State and Territory with the Prime Minister to collectively discuss and advance the COVID response with a focus on collaboration and consistency across jurisdictions.
Over the past 12 months, the National Cabinet has facilitated unprecedented levels of innovation and coordination between federal, state and local governments. Officials in all jurisdictions have worked alongside communities, healthcare professionals and businesses to ensure the successful rollout of the vaccine in Australia and the strong recovery of our economy. Australia now has one of the highest COVID vaccination rates in the world and one of the lowest death rates.
Stephanie Foster, Assistant Secretary for Governance, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia
The evolution of Singapore’s tracking app
“The TraceTogether (TT) app continued to evolve throughout 2021 with the transition to living with rampant COVID-19. When we first launched TraceTogether in March 2020, it was about a pure contact tracing app, which we supplemented with a hardware alternative (the TT token) in September 2020. Last year, after the government made registrations with the TT app or token mandatory in most public places, the team had to fully integrate TT with Singapore’s SafeEntry check-in system. The TT app was also updated to display users’ vaccination and testing statuses in the form of passes.” greens” and “whites”. The role of the TT app has expanded to the point where it has become Singapore’s one-stop app for COVID-19 response and recovery.”
Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Digital Technology Manager and Deputy Managing Director, GovTech, Singapore
A helping hand for New Zealand SMEs
It’s no secret that COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of government. In addition to being the Home Affairs Secretary, I am also the Government’s Digital Director, and a large part of our work at Te Tari Taiwhenua’s Home Affairs Department is to drive a more unified digital public service.
When COVID-19 hit New Zealand’s shores, it highlighted the need to tackle digital inclusion – that is, to ensure people can participate in the digital world. Government agencies, private organizations and NGO sectors are all working together to address this issue, alongside communities and iwi representatives who understand the specific needs of their people.
Our department administered the COVID-19 Recovery SME Digital Skills Fund to address an identified digital divide for people running small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Maori, Pacific and disabled communities. Nearly 1,000 small and medium-sized businesses have new digital skills and capabilities, thanks to the Digital Skills Fund. The fund was successful in addressing the symptoms of digital exclusion of SMEs in the target communities, as well as identifying the underlying structural issues.
We learned a lot about the importance of future trusted partners, working in the communities from which SMEs originate. We have found that personalized and flexible approaches work. It is essential to engage with partners who have strong and lasting relationships and networks in their communities and who can meet their specific needs.
It is clear that closing significant gaps in digital capability takes time and sustained investment is required. The problem is more complex than just the need to acquire “digital skills”, and these other obstacles can prevent the acquisition of digital skills. For example, many SMEs need help developing basic business skills such as planning, budgeting and forecasting, alongside building their digital skills.
A common denominator that has emerged is that small business success is about more than the “bottom line”; it’s about contributing to the community.
Paul James, Home Affairs Secretary, Government Digital Director and Local Government Secretary, New Zealand
Track UK infection rates
It is really difficult to choose an innovative project related to COVID-19. At the Office of National Statistics, several lockdowns have forced us to think about and increase our use of new, faster forms of data, instead of relying solely on traditional survey-related information. These new sources, such as anonymized mobility data from mobile phone providers and anonymized credit/debit card transaction data, have provided vital and up-to-date information on trends and behaviors throughout the pandemic.
The biggest COVID-related project for us, however, is the COVID-19 infection survey, which was set up within weeks at the start of the pandemic, to provide us with a weekly picture of infections and antibodies in our people. This was a massive operation that under normal circumstances would have taken months to set up. To date, we have completed over six million swab samples and the survey is one of the most visited pieces of information produced by the ONS.
Alison Pritchard, Assistant National Statistician and Chief Data Capacity Officer at the Office for National Statistics
Philippines Workforce Support
The Philippine Civil Service Commission (CSC), the central human resources agency of the Philippine bureaucracy, has introduced a number of alternative work arrangements to protect the government workforce during the pandemic. These included remote work, staggered work schedules, a four-day work week, reduced workforce, or a combination of the four work arrangements.
We have offered support mechanisms such as stress debriefing and providing reasonable funds to cover employee expenses during work from home arrangements subject to budgeting, accounting, and auditing rules and regulations. And we have issued interim guidance on the use of leave credits for absences due to quarantine and/or treatment related to COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccination and/or the following adverse events the vaccination.
We have also published guidance on technologies that could be used to enable government recruitment processes to continue despite pandemic-imposed limitations, including the use of videoconferencing for interviews and the use of electronic signature software by appointing authorities.
In addition, guidelines have been issued on the digitization of our quasi-judicial functions. These provided, for example, technical and operational standards to ensure that virtual hearings before CSC and regional offices by videoconference would closely resemble in-person proceedings, including maintaining fairness, order and confidentiality.
CSC is leading a Continuity of Public Services Task Force, which requires all government agencies to submit a plan to ensure the continued delivery of services to the public in the event of a disruption – be it a pandemic, natural disaster, civil unrest or other events.
Alicia dela Rosa Bala, President, Public Service Commission, Philippines