Digital progress in the public sector has been slow in the past, but the economic, social and political challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis and resulting lockdown have forced governments to accelerate their transformation plans. Digitalisation refers to the delivery of services through an electronic information system such as electronic payment mechanisms, digital provision of public services and deployment of remote online work. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has released a blog titled “Resetting the state for the post-COVID digital age” that is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. It looks at how COVID-19 crisis is accelerating the digital transformation of governments and how tech-based and data-driven start-ups are becoming unexpected partners in the race to digital resilience.
The OECD highlights the importance of reinventing digital services in the age of COVID-19 and observes that the COVID-19 crisis has made digital infrastructure of any country a backbone of their entire economy. The need to accelerate the digital transformation stems from an unprecedented change in consumer behaviour as the demand for government digital services has increased since the COVID-19 crisis. Some countries, such as Estonia, that had already embraced the digitalisation of service delivery found it relatively easy to adapt to the new way of working. Similarly, Uruguay’s digital government agency, Agencia de Gobierno Electrónico y Sociedad de la Información y del Conocimiento (AGESIC) defined its digital strategy when the crisis started and 90 per cent of government services were digitalised online from start to completion. For other countries such as Spain and Brazil, the pandemic served as a wakeup call to accelerate their digital transformation.
There are many benefits for governments in investing in digital services. First, digitalisation is expected to make government services cheaper, faster, easily accessible and transparent. For instance, the Brazilian government expects that digitalisation could save them US$60 million per year. Secondly, digital services can help the governments in enhancing the social protection response to crisis. Since the crisis is calling for an emergency social protection response, technology can be useful in terms of a faster collection of essential information such as names, identification numbers and addresses. The administrative registries and self-registration digital services can be used to reach additional beneficiaries who can be paid using appropriate electronic payment modalities. Moreover, many countries have established the emergency responses to COVID-19 crisis at national and sub-national levels. Digital services can quickly and easily facilitate the coordination of the responses among the existing governance systems at different levels.
The COVID-19 crisis provides a sudden glimpse into a future world, one in which technology and digital services have become central to every interaction, forcing governments, organizations and individuals to adapt to digitalisation. The crisis has shown how important it is to be able to react fast and governments that have been consistently developing and accelerating the digitalisation of their services are better equipped in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.