The global pandemic has certainly shaped our personal and professional lives over the past few months. Aotearoa/New Zealand seems to have weathered the initial storm through decisive, early action; luck and location it seems, helping greatly too.

The cross-government response to one of the biggest crises in living memory is a positive one, with many examples of agencies coming together to release information quickly to meet user needs.

The breadth of needs across the public service system was unprecedented as an incredibly fluid situation meant advice and information needed to be designed, released quickly, serving generic and niche use cases as crisis levels evolved. To this end, the COVID-19 response teams have done and continue to do stellar work in responding and releasing across channels.

It is worth considering too, some of the gaps that became apparent as the crisis unfolded.

An agreed 'system'

Speaking in April 2020 to counterparts at GDS in the UK, we learned how their experience of having an all of government Design System in place gave them the 'headspace' to think about the important things, having already had the low level styles and components in place to build services quickly, during their crisis response. The investment in this foundational framework, was essential in creating a resilient, responsive public service dealing with the pandemic.

This is an important point and applies to more than just a Design System. Having a clear, politically sanctioned set of standards, services and workflows in place, empowers government by freeing up time that is needlessly wasted talking/thinking/agreeing on basic approaches to information and service provision during a crisis. So, for example, decisions driven in the initial stages of response are better informed, supported by wider government 'know-how', systems at an earlier stage.

Readiness in response

Government needs to be more ready and needs to do the hard work now to put in place the support, established frameworks and standards so for example, when there is a need to bring in commercial support, government can lead the brief, with clear ‘rules of engagement’ that makes for sound decision making in times of high stress.

As part of the COVID-19 response in the UK, GDS teams stood up end-to-end services for users in days rather than weeks precisely because the systems, standards were in place, so teams could focus on the user need and build flows and release quickly.

Consolidation and focus

The fragmentation of the government digital space builds risk as agencies stand up web services without any overall governance, sight or controls. This in turn, may impede the type of swift, systematic response needed during times of crisis.

In relation to COVID-19, Gerry McGovern (Digital Transformation Consultant) states “Until we have a vaccine, information is our vaccine” in an article describing international work with WHO around an information structure for a more effective pandemic response.

Indeed, government needs to give the key information channels it builds, and runs, the attention they deserve. These information services and systems need to be treated as important infrastructure.

The quality of the services on that infrastructure need to be strengthened by consolidation of effort, investment, and sanction of agreed standards, frameworks. This would ensure a resilient, responsive infrastructure for a truly unified, cross-functional, responsive public service informed by (and informing) wider strategic imperatives.

As we move into a different stage of COVID-19 response; a little less hurried, it is important that we do not lose sight of this. It is crucial that we commit now to work so that NZ government can be better prepared, appropriately reactive while cohesive, inclusive and confident in crisis response.