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During COVID-19 the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) was able to perform beyond the limitations of its IT infrastructure by harnessing its ‘people first’ culture, digital channels and agile ways of working to respond to increased demands and new wage subsidies.

Case study background

This Ministry of Social Development (MSD) case study is 1 of 4 in the 2020 report ‘Digital insights from the public service response to COVID-19’.

The report shares insights on digital capabilities required during the COVID-19 response, and what’s required to progress a unified digital public service.

The case studies are interviews with 4 different organisations to understand their challenges and successes in response to COVID-19 lockdowns in NZ. 

Digital insights from the public service response to COVID-19

Case study insights

The MSD experience of working during COVID-19 lockdowns offers key insights.

  • COVID-19 demands were met by shifting to online and call centre channels, rapid redeployment, and scaling up of resources across the organisation.
  • Agile behaviours, mindsets and ceremonies allowed MSD to leverage its IT infrastructure and create solutions for the COVID-19 response.
  • Multidisciplinary teams in IT and across the organisation enabled rapid decision-making and design of new services driven by the COVID-19 response.
  • Intensifying the real-time monitoring of services was required.
  • The use of the Agile method in the COVID-19 response has cemented the value of being agile across the whole organisation.

Interview

The following people from MSD were interviewed in this case study:

  • Anurag Madan — Chief Technology Officer
  • Stephen Crombie — Deputy Chief Executive, Chief Information Officer.

They describe the MSD response to COVID-19 as follows.

Shifting to online and call centre channels

We usually operate a mixed model between digital, front of house and call centre. Before COVID-19, we had approximately 5,500 service delivery staff, with 130 offices, in 6 major processing centres. During COVID-19 we needed to convert our whole model into a call centre and digital-only model. Our goal was for 70% of our frontline staff to be able to work from home.

The Wage Subsidy, for example, and its ongoing permutations, needed to be ready to go within days of the policy being agreed. We needed to reconfigure service delivery to create a large virtual call centre across MSD, increase our capacity in the digital channels and enable the vast majority of our people to work remotely. That required extending out and doubling the scope of our call centre. We built what might be the largest call centre in New Zealand in a few days and extended the call centre capability to all of our frontline staff.

Rapid redeployment and scaling up resources

The support of our vendors was a key component to success. They allowed us to access what we needed without onerous licensing and compliance restrictions.

We maximised our Jabber voice platform, allowing us to deliver the number of video conferences we were running, and scale up the call manager capacity. We made our call platform, Genesis, available not just for the contact centre people, but for the entire frontline.

We then had to take the demand off the call centres. We transitioned some of our transactions online — for example, hardship payments that are made on an ad hoc basis. That led to a sudden influx of demand on the digital channel. Not only did we need to make functional changes, but also capacity changes to meet the demand.

Multidisciplinary teams coming together

The national disruption was not a situation we had prepared for, where certain areas could operate while others could not. This put stress on the entire organisation. From the beginning, we were conscious of the need to manage increasing demand, to get ahead of the wave and be ready.

Our story is centred around culture, attitude and mindsets. Our COVID-19 response was all about being agile. The following were our key questions for us.

  • How do we pivot?
  • How willing are we to change?
  • How do we come together to deliver when people are working across different locations?

All of the existing governance arrangements were put on hold, and a COVID-19 committee and various multidisciplinary teams were created. From the beginning we worked across policy, technology, legal and delivery functions to work on things from end to end. With the leadership team included, we were able to identify what needed to be done, work together to find solutions and then make sure it happened. The whole team left meetings with clear decisions made, knowing what to do and able to do it.

The key take-away was how policy, service delivery, technology, finance — all those functional capabilities — came together in a team so quickly. This continued 7 days a week for many weeks, creating a completely integrated work programme that was understood by the whole organisation.

Transitioning tools, resources and processes

The challenge was to get our delivery machinery ready so that we could support the government’s response to COVID-19 through wage subsidies and other schemes. To stand up the Wage Subsidy and support the All-of-Government Helpline response, we had to complete a large dynamic transition and shift of all of the resources across the organisation, along with policies, to make it all work securely.

To meet this need and be able to dynamically surge, we had to retool the organisation to manage the workflow. We had a legacy system called Straight Through Processing (STP), that we had to re-platform and rebuild. This allowed us to manage what was a massive set of queues, cope with the demand and keep the core business functioning through that period. We did so in a 6-week period through the lockdowns. At the time, almost all of us were working remotely.

Through the COVID-19 lockdown surge we also needed more skilled people to do the extra work. To meet this demand, we recruited 2,500 people. We did this without recruitment machinery, using multidisciplinary teams working in parallel. We went from a 40-day to a 10-day average to on-board people — all done digitally. This was a major achievement.

Real-time system monitoring

A big challenge was figuring out how to monitor if our system was running smoothly and securely. We set up a 24/7 IT operations and security centre. All the technical product owners and managers dialled in 2 to 3 times a day to check how things were going and make sure we had the mechanisms all set up.

We set up text groups on our phones, allowing us to reach 20 to 30 key people with quick, instant notifications, avoiding the need to wade through emails. Having the IT operation and security centre set up like this made it possible for us to have enhanced awareness, share information in real time and keep the leadership team informed. This continues to operate today.

The pandemic cemented the value of being agile

The first big lesson was the importance of an agile implementation model across the organisation. For the last 4 years, the IT group had been on a Scaled Agile journey and had been using Agile as the core delivery model. We thought it would be helpful — we didn't think it would be powerful.

The Agile approach enabled the collaboration required between all parts of the organisation to pivot resources and thinking to different sets of problems. The Scaled Agile model way of thinking was immediately implemented by the leadership of the Ministry. Every day we had a core group of multifunctional teams working, identified barriers and blockages to issues, and addressed them in real time.

The second lesson was that it’s not always about technology. Our people’s innovation enabled us to overcome the limitations of our infrastructure, and reconfigure and extend things in new ways. That has been the big determinant. It was a combination of the people, enough technology and the spark of innovation to enable it to happen.

The third lesson was the importance of the underlying values and culture of the organisation and the focus on purpose. A commitment to purpose will drive innovation.

As we have come down through the lockdown levels, we are not going back to the old way of operating. We continue to evolve the service model to increase emphasis on the digital channel. We continue to deploy an agile mindset across technology groups, our people groups, and property. Everything is moving into that model and is very much owned by the senior management as a way of operating.

As Debbie Power our Chief Executive says, ‘We did 3 years of transformation in 3 weeks.’ We moved the organisation to a model that we thought we wanted pre-COVID-19, but COVID-19 brought it to life, both in terms of our channel model and the way in which the Ministry now works.

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