by Joachim Murat, public sector industry director, EMEA civil government, VMware
It was Winston Churchill, one of history’s most prominent wartime figures who said, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And now, some 75 years later, as the world faces an altogether different kind of battle, the same notion still applies.
We are in a time of unprecedented disruption. From fluctuating demand to heightened concerns over sustainability set against a backdrop of automation and increasing reliance on artificial intelligence. As a result, governments are experiencing almost daily changes to established practices, protocols and processes, which is presenting both the biggest challenge and opportunity of our time. Working models of how we live have changed faster in the first six months of 2020 than in the past three years. Analysts estimate that two years’ worth of transformation has been compressed into about 10 weeks and, in doing so, has put every nation’s digital resilience to the test. It has revealed the importance of a country’s digital infrastructure as the backbone of the economy, not just as an enabler of the technology economy.
One of the major impacts – and legacy – of COVID is that it has highlighted gaps in the public sector and, by proxy emphasised how far ahead the private sector is (for reference see Amazon, Tesco or Zoom to name but a few). It means that governments have been given an opportunity – to accelerate the digitisation of the state.
Learnings from lockdown
Lockdown caused issues for us all and the government was no exception. Basic functions were hit hard as services like justice activity, parliament, education and even elections were hit hard. This is due to the combination of the fact that, all of these functions rely on face to face interaction and that most administrations around the world have no viable system for people to work from home efficiently and safely. While most have managed by using consumer applications like Gmail, Zoom or WhatsApp, the shutdown highlighted that governments were not prepared enough and exposed the need to be able to operate public service from home or remote locations.
But here’s the thing. Almost all the functions states require could be resilient with existing technology – there is no need to create something out of the blue, bespoke or in a rush. Assuming the telecommunications capacity is there, the bedrock is in place to move, share and store data depending on demand. Netflix is another example to contextualise how it is used in the private sector. It varies the speed and quality of its streaming depending on demand to ensure there is no disruption to manage bandwidth capacity. There is no reason why the public sector cannot follow suit.
Rapid acceleration of digitisation
Long before the crisis hit, the data-driven digital revolution has been challenging governments to modernise and become more agile, open and responsive. Progress though been uneven, hindered by a variety of factors, from political resistance to budget constraints. Putting states in post-COVID start-up mode will nevertheless require new ways of doing business in government and new forms of public-private partnerships to accelerate innovation.
Today, all governments – central, local, provincial – are trialling (willingly, or not) employees working remotely based purely on the ability for the citizen to be in contact with the administration through their laptop or mobile. And this is just one example. States are equipping themselves fast. What we will see globally is a key component of the stimulus package being the reinforcement of digital infrastructure. Not only creating jobs in the short term, but modernising national systems that create enough network capacity and bandwidth to cope with new ways of working, while significantly optimizing their carbon footprint.
Spain, for example, recently announced an ambitious plan to inject 70 billion euro into its digital transformation over the next five years, with a Digital Spain 2025 agenda comprising 10 priorities and 48 measures. The education system in Munich has, in two weeks, equipped all teachers and schools – around 200,000 pupils, 700 schools, 30,000 teachers – with capacity to deliver proper education through devices and technology. In fact, bar the digitisation of elections (due to issues around accessibility, trust and risk) governments around the world are rapidly accelerating digitalisation.
Searching for sovereignty
Though this won’t be without challenge. The irony being that investment in digital will accentuate the digital divide. There will be citizens in low reception areas, while the plight of our seniors and those on low income is well documented. However, these are known issues and are currently being addressed. Load balancing will help, as will the arrival of 5G, by virtualizing the network.
This has brought another issue to the fore – digital sovereignty. This is a big worry for governments because not every country can have a Google or IBM and without these homegrown technology providers, independence in terms of digital infrastructure is compromised. Citizen data and sensitive government information is at risk of going out a backdoor to fuel anything from state-backed cyber-attacks to espionage. For reference look no further than Huaweii. Europe has responded well with its broad GDPR regulation but if a government needs to manage a cloud dedication for tax or healthcare, each country needs to manage its own. For example, in France, you cannot operate a cloud for the state if you are not French and the data centre is not based in France.
This has led to the rise of a project called Gaia-X designed to develop European cloud infrastructure in an effort to help local providers compete with U.S. technology giants. Cloud providers taking part in Gaia-X will be required to certify to their corporate customers that their information remains secure and provide guarantees about where it is stored and how it is processed. Participating in the project would require cloud providers to use the same standards, letting businesses easily move their data from one provider to another. The importance of this project is underlined by the many examples of success in the cloud. The DVLA in the UK uses data from number plate recognition to decide on where to put new routes to ease conjunction. The NHS too, relies on the cloud to inform where to build new hospitals.
Nine days to nirvana
There is no doubt that governments are still facing colossal challenges with COVID. But technology should certainly not be one of them. In fact, it should be the strongest support. The COVID-19 crisis is tearing down many of the barriers and allowing reformers to fast forward critical reforms, such as a universal digital identity, secured digital signatures, agile digital payments, and interoperability platforms to share information across government agencies.
Governments have been traumatised by poor IT investments historically – everything from wasted money to conflicted agenda and lack of understanding. But cloud neutral technology is arguably the best accelerator for the government because it can increase all the positives and cut down on cost, time. As a demonstration, VMware set-up home working for an administration in France. Despite never meeting physically we were able to deploy 27,000 home working systems with all the required applications, security, and access rights – it took nine days.
The technology is clearly there and it is the stimulus that we’ll need after this crisis. In fact, it is the accelerator of change.