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The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development leveraged its cloud capabilities during COVID-19 and adapted its use of digital tools to continue core business and connect remotely in new ways.

Case study background

This Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 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 HUD experience of working during COVID-19 lockdowns offers key insights.

  • Cloud technology and modern office productivity platforms were key to business continuity during lockdown.
  • It’s important to have secure systems.
  • COVID-19 accelerated the use of digital tools and has introduced new ways of working that HUD will retain.
  • Digital tools can be effective for remote engagement and can boost stakeholder participation.
  • It’s important to support and upskill staff to make the shift to working and engaging remotely.
  • Retaining a modern workplace requires continual reflection, improvement and investment.

Interview

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

  • Stephanie Rowe — Deputy Chief Executive, System and Organisational Performance
  • Edwina Revell — Chief Information Officer.

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

Cloud technology and modern office productivity platforms

We were fortunate that being a fairly new organisation, we were ‘born in the cloud’ and the majority of our work could be done using devices. In many ways, we were all set up to pick up and walk out the door when COVID-19 hit. From a continuity perspective, we had no break in our systems.

We sat in on the inter-agency meetings hosted by the Digital Public Service branch 2 to 3 times a week from the beginning, and hearing some of the challenges of other agencies was confronting.

We felt grateful that we were in a good situation with a modern workplace environment. We had the advantage of being 100% in the cloud. And we had trust in the tools that we had bought into, for example from Microsoft. They provided us with the best practice approach, and we keep building on that.

It’s important to have secure systems

We had already been running a zero-trust model in terms of security before COVID-19, especially as people were working remotely much more.

(Zero trust is a security concept that requires all users, even those inside the organisation’s enterprise network, to be authenticated before being able to access applications and data.)

We made sure that all the security layers and data protection tools were in place. We’re meticulous about ensuring our certifications and accreditations are always up to date.

Digital tools boosted connection

COVID-19 presented us with the opportunity to start using a wider range of functions of the digital tools we had available to us, but hadn’t previously used. The experience challenged people’s thinking about how they could use their tools differently, rather than just sitting in the office with a device and a headset.

There was a sense of pride that emerged as our people recognised the good position we were in, which helped how we responded to and embraced this new way of working.

Connecting with each other

During COVID-19 we used Microsoft Teams to connect in ways we hadn’t before. We set up cross-agency groups to connect people — for example, for parents at HUD, and people isolating on their own. We had live stand-ups with the Chief Executive every week.

We also welcomed a new Deputy Chief Executive (DCE). We held the whole ceremony on Live Events for the organisation to tune into, with the new DCE, the previous DCE and the other DCEs all in their various houses. We pre-recorded a conference call of all the new DCE’s direct reports speaking to and welcoming her. The waiata groups were also pre-recorded, and it was incredible. We had initially thought that it wouldn’t have the same warmth, emotion or inclusion, but I still get goose bumps about it. It was quite phenomenal.

We now use Microsoft Teams in a different way than pre-COVID-19, which has enabled more people to connect.

Connecting with stakeholders

Before COVID-19, we were working on a key policy statement. We had just arranged to go around the country to complete a big phase of engagement before beginning consultation. When COVID-19 hit, we couldn’t continue, so we went digital and ran 8 online workshops, including a focus on iwi engagement.

We had also just put out a large Request for Proposal when lockdown happened. We were able to run the supplier Q and As and all of the supplier presentations on Teams Live Events. They worked really well.

We now meet regularly with the chief executives of all the community housing providers around the country. Using Zoom and Teams now means that these forums are bigger and more open and we have found different ways of including more people in these conversations.

Upskilling staff to shift to remote working and engagement

For the first few weeks of lockdown, we ran a remote-working clinic every day. People could drop in for 20 minutes and get advice and guidance about remote connection, how to set up their workstation at home, plug in the external monitor, use Teams, or any other problems they were having. We then ran team ‘lunch and learns’ every few days to answer questions and get people more up to speed.

We helped people through the adoption stage of new tools and using existing tools in a different way. We worked with experts to determine the best way to engage online and we supported the engagement workshops we ran for our key policy development in a number of ways. Before the workshops we deployed an online survey to identify the issues that mattered to participants. We also set up break out groups using virtual whiteboards.

We got some amazing feedback from the participants on how well those workshops were run online. It helped that everyone had become used to connecting online.

We need to keep moving forward

We are finishing a few larger establishment projects — for example, financial management and HR systems. We’re also in the process of putting in a ministerial solution, and refreshing the website and intranet. While there has not been a major change to our digital roadmap, there is now a subtle change to everything we do. For example, activity-based working is going to be the norm at HUD.

We are now thinking in a more flexible way in terms of how we do things and the systems we implement. Today we keep building on the notion that we’re modern now, but in 6 months we won’t be unless we keep moving forward.

This experience has taken us into a completely new way of working. We need to keep going and stay ahead of the next thing.

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