Five lessons from Covid on digital government

By Hong Eng Koh

Hong-Eng Koh, Huawei’s Global Chief Government Industry Scientist, shares his observations about what makes or breaks governments’ digitalisation efforts.

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” These words by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus are more applicable than ever today.

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered differing responses from governments across the world. What can we learn from the best of them, and how can governments translate these lessons into their digital transformation efforts?

Effective digital government strategies have five essential attributes.

1. Sensing

First and foremost, governments need to have the capacity to collect accurate, high-quality data and information.

Access to timely, detailed data has helped governments become more targeted in their fight against the coronavirus. For instance, Singapore developed the world’s first purpose-built app to supplement contact tracing efforts. This helps authorities track down community transmission when infected individuals cannot recall who they have had prolonged contact with.

Of course, governments need to ensure that data collection methods are legal under the prevailing privacy frameworks. In South Korea, which was hit hard by the 2015 MERS outbreak, many citizens trust the authorities with access to their data to fight the pandemic. Under existing privacy laws, governments can make use of data from mobile phones, credit cards and even videos, leading to efficient and comprehensive contact tracing.

2. Sense-making

Stopping at data-collection isn’t enough. Governments need to be able to interpret multiple sources of information to get a clear picture of what is happening on the ground.

China has years of experience in using big data technology to analyse public and private sources of data for insights. In the fight against coronavirus, massive-scale data analysis is used to trace third-degree contacts — individuals who may have come into close contact with people at high risk of coronavirus infection.

Furthermore, countries can leverage on technology to arrive at insights faster. Take chest CT scans: they can be used to detect and appraise the progression of Covid-19 and assess patients’ response to alternative treatments, but are very time-consuming to assess. Many countries, including China, are using AI technology to help doctors expedite their analyses of these scans.

3. Communicating

In a rapidly evolving situation, reliable and almost-instant information flows are crucial for governments. They inspire trust in the authorities, and can stop misinformation and panic from spreading faster than the virus itself.

For instance, the Singapore government’s Whatsapp and Telegram broadcast channels have been providing twice- or thrice-daily updates on case numbers. These provide transparent information to citizens about the country’s coronavirus situation, dispelling rumors and speculation.

Good infocommunications infrastructure and high mobile penetration underpin effective public communication. Countries such as China, South Korea and Singapore can communicate with residents and roll out new services quickly because of high mobile penetration. South Korea and Singapore also have network speeds of over 20 megabits per second — these came from a clear push towards infrastructure development, years before the outbreak was even on the horizon.

4. Collaborating

Another key component of governments’ virus response is their ability to leverage on the strengths of different parties.

Intra-government coordination is essential in combating the epidemic. In China, for example, provincial and local governments have a high degree of autonomy in daily operations. However, central and provincial governments worked closely in the fight against Covid-19, sending healthcare workers and medical supplies across the country to assist affected areas.

Crises also reveal governments’ ability to quickly connect to the private sector to produce the best solutions for residents. As soon as the first wave of Covid-19 hit South Korea, the government worked with many medical supply manufacturers to produce test kits. This has allowed the government to test nearly 1.2 million individuals to date.

Trust in the government helps to facilitate community-government cooperation. In countries such as China, Singapore and New Zealand, there was large-scale compliance with government movement control orders. This enabled them to contain the spread of the virus more effectively as compared to several Western states, where defiance and even protests over quarantine measures accelerated the spread of Covid-19.

5. Decision-making

Lastly, governments have to be able to take calculated risks based on the available data, and then take steps to ensure that their objectives can be met. These include enacting and enforcing laws, allocating budgets, mobilising resources, and initiating projects.

Prompt decision-making is critical to curb the spread of Covid-19. For example, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern acted decisively to completely close the country’s borders in March. This has allowed New Zealand to be the only country to date to fully recover from the coronavirus outbreak, reporting zero cases on 7 June.

Other countries have benefited from swift intervention as well. China rapidly mobilised healthcare professionals and the military to help in Covid-19 affected areas, and even built field hospitals in a matter of days to help medical workers cope with the shortage of beds in existing facilities. The South Korean government also acted quickly, setting up drive-thru coronavirus screening locations to efficiently test large groups of people for the virus with minimal fear of transmission.

A cohesive government that inspires trust in citizens; the ability to collect and make sense of data; the capacity to make decisions quickly and communicate them effectively to citizens; and a strong partnership between the public and the private sector. These are features that have served governments well in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, and will continue to prove critical for any government’s digitisation success.