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The Department of Internal Affairs has commissioned independent research to understand government organisations’ and system leaders’ experience of operating during the COVID-19 response.

The pandemic experience has given government organisations insights into what the gains of working in a digitally-optimal environment might be, what might be required to support this environment, and what this type of environment might enable. The pandemic experience has also highlighted where there may be shortfalls in current strategy, systems, infrastructure and practices.

While the research is not yet finalised, it’s enabled us to come up with a hierarchical model of digital needs. Asking government organisations about their needs during this crisis and which of their needs took precedence over others has helped to frame our thinking about digital capability. Agency leaders may be able to use this model to consider the digital capabilities that underpin their business environments, their customer service interfaces, and their ability to be responsive – not just when dealing with disasters, but when new issues or opportunities arise.

The final report on the research will be published in early in 2021 on digital.govt.nz.

Hierarchy of digital needs model

The model emerging from the research is a 4-tier pyramid that illustrates a hierarchy of an agency’s needs in a crisis. Think of applying the model of Maslow’s hierarchy to a digital universe – once you’ve sorted the fundamental issues of food and shelter, then what’s the next priority? We think there’s value in looking at our response to the pandemic in this way, and it may also provide a grounded way to think about digital maturity and resilience.

In this model, from the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the 4 layers of needs are: operational needs, functional needs, the need to collaborate and share information across ecosystems, and the need to respond to new challenges.

At each layer in the pyramid, we’ve examined what digital capabilities are required to meet the need.

Meeting operational needs

The first and foundational layer in the pyramid is where an agency has the digital capabilities to take care of core operational needs. Think of the operations that are critical to keeping an agency’s ‘lights on’. Things like finance, payroll, Ministerial servicing and contracting. If people are working from different places, how easily can everyone connect to keep these core operations running? Confidence in the ability to connect digitally, with systems and appropriately authorised people performing key tasks, has been critical during the pandemic. Getting all the digital tools and practices that are needed in place will be essential if people increasingly work from a mix of physical and virtual workspaces.

Fulfilling functional purposes

The second layer in the pyramid is where an agency has the digital capabilities, infrastructure and platforms to fulfil their core functional purposes. Government organisations need to be able to ‘keep the doors open’. They may also need to redeploy resources to priority areas or to areas seeing a surge in demand. Think, for example, of being able to continue to process benefit payments and, at the same time, deliver new forms of income support for people whose income was affected by COVID-19.

While some people will need to access services in person, government organisations that are equipped to provide their services through multiple channels, including digital channels, will have better functional resilience.

In this layer, it’s also important for government organisations to make sure that user needs remain at the centre of service design and delivery. This includes considering the impact of digital inclusion and how to address the issues of access, skills, motivation and trust.

Collaborating and sharing information across ecosystems

The third layer in the pyramid is where an agency has the ability to collaborate and to share information. To be effective, agencies need to connect across an ecosystem of government organisations, third-party public service providers, iwi (Māori communities) and trusted intermediaries.

This calls out an agency’s ability to enable the smooth flow of data, insights and transactional information. Government organisations need the capability to gather, share and make use of information to deliver a shared outcome for New Zealand and New Zealanders. Government organisations also need to recognise when it’s important to collaborate, consult or codesign, and to consider what ways of working and platforms they can use to achieve this.

We know that there’s still work to be done around sharing information smoothly across government organisations and beyond, and around creating the social licence and foundations for this. As well as addressing important themes like trust and privacy, agencies need to consider where information is held, the format that it’s in and how it can be accessed securely.

Responding to new needs

The fourth and top layer of the pyramid is where an agency has the agility to respond to new needs and challenges. The research has revealed that a focus on outcomes and being agile has been fundamental to government organisations being able to respond to the challenges raised by the pandemic. Beyond the pandemic, it’s worth considering what opportunities there are for organisations to be more agile in other parts of their business, and what practices and settings can deliver the right balance of agility and assurance.

When facing new challenges, the question of ‘what do we have to work with?’ puts a spotlight on the current state of each agency’s data and digital assets. Can the data provide insights about problems and possible solutions? To what extent are digital platforms and infrastructure reusable assets that are scalable and accessible?

As well as focussing on working with what’s available to them now, government organisations should consider their strategic roadmap to building better assets. When agencies deeply understand the why, what and how of their digital strategy and the likely roadmap to achieving this, they can better drive and pursue opportunities that line up with these. Agencies can then be both innovative and strategic in the way they respond to new challenges.

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