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Report summary: Digital insights from the public service response to COVID-19

About the research

The physical distancing measures required for the New Zealand COVID-19 response significantly changed the operating environment for the public service and provided insights into what digitally-enabled operations and business functions could look like.

In late 2020, the Digital Public Service branch of the Department of Internal Affairs commissioned qualitative research from The Navigators, specialist consultants, on insights from the COVID-19 pandemic response to inform:

  • what digital capabilities are required for readiness and response to outbreaks of COVID-19 or other significant incidents in the future, and
  • what is required to progress a unified and digitally enabled public service.

The researchers interviewed more than 50 agency, system and thought leaders, and produced a detailed report and 4 case studies interviewing government agencies on their responses. While there was a high level of consistency in insights across participating agencies, other agencies may have had different experiences. 

This summary page includes key insights from the report.

Agency capabilities for resilience, readiness and responsiveness

Different agency capabilities impact on resilience and responsiveness and affect the public service as a whole. The most resilient and responsive agencies during the COVID-19 response typically had a higher level of digital capability.

Key insights from the report include:

  • Digital capabilities are key to the public service’s responsiveness and resilience.
  • There was a wide range in digital capability across the small sample of public service organisations interviewed.
  • As digital adoption accelerates, government organisations need to be more assured about their digital capabilities, security, infrastructure settings, risk and incident management.
  • COVID-19 accelerated the uptake of remote working.
  • The acceleration of off-site, cloud enabled operations across the public service also means that system settings and policies need to enable this changing context.
  • Capabilities for outside the core public service also need to be considered, including for:
    • vendors and telecommunications providers, including prioritisation of supply chains
    • community and service delivery partners and iwi.

Digital capabilities for a range of agency needs

Digital capability is more than having devices, network hardware, software and servers. It is a commitment to agile behaviours and mindsets.

[It’s also about] the capability of your people including your leaders, and the way you think about your customer, the problems you are trying to solve and the outcomes you seek to deliver.

A 4-tier hierarchical pyramid emerged from this research to illustrate a hierarchy of agency needs in a crisis. It can help agency leaders to make sense an organisation’s strengths or gaps.

Insights from COVID-19: Using a model of needs to consider an agency’s digital capabilities

Digital capabilities for an organisation to meet its core operating needs

  • The ability to connect staff via the internet, and a workforce via portable devices.
  • Digital access to work tools, back office systems, data and documents.
  • Digital tools to work together.
  • Safe and secure remote working arrangements.
  • Cybersecurity, information security and privacy risk management and assurance for an off-site, cloud enabled workforce.

Digital capabilities for an organisation to fulfil its functional needs

  • The ability to rapidly and seamlessly shift channels and resources when demand for services change.
  • Fewer internal barriers to using digital processes, channels and ways of working.
  • The ability to flex customer contact management to respond to changing demand.
  • Multi-channels to boost resilience and support inclusion.
  • Delivery partners and stakeholders that are digitally included and capable.

Digital capabilities for an organisation to collaborate and share information across ecosystems

  • Digital platforms for working with external stakeholders.
  • Access to data from across the ecosystem.
  • Automated sharing of data models and data assets for better advice or customer experiences.

Digital capabilities for an organisation’s ability to respond to new needs and initiatives

  • Digital systems that are scalable and flexible.
  • Agile way of working including working in multidisciplinary teams with horizontal governance, focus on outcomes and users, customer insights and iteration.

Digital capabilities for remote working

Organisations that were better placed for remote working had:

  • invested in portable devices
  • remotely accessible software
  • increased network capacity as well as more elastic capacity to support business as usual and incidents
  • ‘right sized’ or scalable network access
  • digital practitioner skills
  • shifted to software-as-a-service (SaaS) rather than locally installed office productivity applications
  • a higher level of adoption of cloud services
  • secure access to required data and information
  • more mature security settings for remote working
  • fewer internal barriers to using digital processes, channels and ways of working.

Tools to communicate and collaborate

Virtual communication and collaboration platforms should now be considered as core work tools for agencies. It’s important to support workers and managers to adapt to new tools and other changes to support remote working. Managers used digital tools to connect and care for staff, but this took additional time and effort.

A functional remote working setup

The staff members’ home environments, the nature of the work they do and their connectivity and access to work systems and tools all impacted on the success and feasibility of remote working.

Secure access and sharing

New or amended security processes and practices to ensure safe and effective remote working are required. Working from locations shared with others, secure communication and document sharing were new risks to assess and manage.

An adjustment of agency and system cybersecurity settings and operational policies is needed for remote working and a cloud-enabled public service.

The pace of moving to remote working when physical distance measures were first put in place for COVID-19 means that some organisations should now go back and revisit their cyber, information and device settings that impact on information and network security.

Guidance for remote working

Guidance on digital considerations for remote working is available. It was informed by this research, which included insights from subject matter experts across government on their responses during COVID-19.

Remote working

System-level insights for a digitally enabled public service

The research gained insights on what’s required to progress a digitally enabled public service by looking at how digital capabilities across the system supported the resilience and responsiveness of the NZ public service as a whole.

These insights are likely to be system-wide, or may require action at system-level by functional leaders, central agencies, or in a joint or coordinated way.

Joint leadership is required for a unified digital public service

The research suggests joint leadership is required for:

  • improved system and agency resilience and readiness
  • coordinated action on digital inclusion
  • accelerated adoption of cloud services and secure cloud use that is fit for Aotearoa
  • shifts in system settings to support more horizontal and agile digital development
  • more strategic thinking about post-COVID investments
  • hybrid workspaces that are both physical and virtual workspaces
  • workforce considerations for remote working
  • security and assurance for cloud-based and off-premises working
  • joint design and collaboration for integrated services and transactions that are people focused
  • digital and data interoperability and access.

Digital inclusion is an urgent issue to address

COVID-19 highlighted how prevalent and impactful digital exclusion is for New Zealanders.

The increasing use of digital channels for public and private service delivery means that there is now an accelerated requirement for nationwide, quality connectivity and for affordable access to the internet and devices. Skills, digital acceptance and trust are also issues to address to boost inclusion.

There is a perceived lack of cohesion across government in progressing digital inclusion as a critical system challenge. More coordinated action across agencies and at system-level is needed to address digital inclusion.

Digital inclusion

Māori – Crown partnership is key to a successful digital response

System and agency leaders made a number of observations about the current state of the digital dimension of the relationship between Māori and the Crown, and how that can contribute positively to the Crown being a trusted Treaty partner.

This was across a number of domains including data governance, data and cloud-based infrastructure, relationships with iwi, and what digital exclusion may mean for how Māori participate equally in both the digital environment and society.

Digitally-enabled engagement with iwi leaders was vital during COVID-19 and can be used in the future. Co-design with iwi and Māori partners may be a key ingredient to successfully developing digital services that are intended for Māori use.

Interoperability improves efficiency

Greater interoperability and alignment between agencies could have improved the efficiency of the pandemic response. This was true across a number of domains.

The research noted frustration at the variation in and disconnection between the various communication and collaboration platforms used across agencies, within them, and across the wider ecosystem.

More work is needed on common data definitions and architecture that supports data interface. This was a known issue before the pandemic. There is also work to do on the governance and regulation of data.

There was a call for greater compatibility and interoperability among the digital tools public servants use for work, but recognition that some level of diversity of tools and platforms should be accepted and will boost resilience.

Investing in modern digital infrastructure builds productivity and resilience

Several agency leaders expressed the view that, at both an agency and a system level, there has typically been an underinvestment in modern technology. The current digital architecture of government is largely a ‘patchwork’ of on-premises, agency-based, often ageing legacy systems that support core processes in key agencies, with some cloud-based services.

Smaller or less resourced agencies may need additional support to build digital capability.

There is a belief that increasing investment in the core, underlying systems and ensuring they are both current and flexible, will enhance productivity and build system resilience when unexpected events occur.

Many noted the costs of moving away from bespoke agency legacy systems to more modern platforms. At the same time, new digital solutions are reducing costs, development timeframes and implementation risks.

There is a need for more strategic thinking post-COVID to drive investment toward flexible, interoperable and scalable infrastructure.

Digital leadership and skills are necessary

Given the level of investment and transformative potential associated with digital technologies, the breadth and depth of digital literacy and knowledge of agile processes across agencies and among leaders is important. Currently it is mixed.

Minimum standards of digital literacy and skills across the wider workforce of public service providers are needed to confidently leverage new digital platforms and collaboration tools.

Digital behaviours and mindsets matter

Digital behaviours such as experimentation, iteration, user-centred thinking and design, and working in agile ways are important for progressing a digitally enabled public service.

The development of services that are more integrated across agencies will require greater collaboration to design solutions for New Zealanders rather than agencies.

COVID-19 required agencies to work collaboratively to common outcomes — it’s important not to revert to siloed behaviours.

Supporting a shift to agile ways of working and cloud services

The response to the pandemic demonstrated the need for the public service to deliver more quickly and in a more agile manner. Shifts in leaders’ mindsets and system settings may be needed to embed this further.

The NZ Government has a Cloud First policy in place, but security and Māori data governance continue to be issues that need further consideration. New funding arrangements that support adoption of cloud services should also be considered.

It’s important to consider governance, assurance, investment and procurement practices in a more agile way that works in a digital context.

System-wide data and digital assets need a stronger approach

A stronger approach is needed for system-wide data and digital assets. This includes maintaining existing assets and developing new ones. A trusted technology for contact tracing may be required for a pandemic-ready New Zealand. Agency leaders have embraced having a trusted digital identity ecosystem as an asset for NZ. Data systems are also seen as important system assets.

Digital trust is also an invaluable asset

At an agency and system-level, the need for trust was a recurring theme — for building digital inclusion, for digital identity, for use of data, and for contact tracing. As the COVID-19 response moves from crisis to recovery to the ‘new normal’, governments around the world will need to focus on maintaining the social licence for digital technologies.

Regulations, system settings and policy for the digital age

It is important to ensure that digital and data policies appropriately support a modern digital government including:

  • keeping personal data private, safe and secure
  • establishing acceptable conditions and rules for data sharing and use
  • reflect the obligations in Te Tiriti o Waitangi
  • driving digital inclusion
  • allowing digital channels to be used as well as, or instead of, in-person servicing
  • creating the foundations for trust
  • supporting agile technology development and ways of working.

A changing context for the Strategy for a Digital Public Service

The NZ government’s Strategy for a Digital Public Service outlines a new vision for how the public service can operate in an increasingly digital world to better meet the needs of New Zealanders. The insights from COVID-19 support the direction of the Strategy for a Digital Public Service.

Since COVID-19 there have been significant changes, including accelerated digital adoption, remote working, and stronger recognition of the importance of digital inclusion and a resilient public service.

As the actions related to the Strategy are progressed, the shifts in the strategic environment, priority actions and opportunities in a post-COVID environment should be considered.

Strategy for a Digital Public Service


Interviewees provided a rich and varied view of agency responses to the pandemic. Their feedback gave insights about the extent to which their digital capabilities and the status of the system overall helped or in some cases inhibited their responses.

This research led to 2 broad sets of conclusions:

  • Key digital capabilities contributed to agency success.
  • Complex system-level challenges remain.

The lessons learned from these agencies and from system leaders provide an opportunity to recalibrate thinking and priorities about how the Digital Public Service branch can support the ongoing digital growth and development of agencies and the system overall.

Read the full report 

To request the 80 page PDF report, email the Government Chief Digital Officer’s team

To read the 4 case studies, see:

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