Pushed by the Pandemic, Government Agencies Sped-Up Their Digital Transformations. Now There Is No Going Back.

The public is accustomed to fast, efficient, and effective digital services from the private sector. Salesforce is helping government agencies make the switch.

Last year, the global pandemic catalyzed a rapid alteration in the way businesses and consumers leverage digital technologies to solve problems, stay safe and remain connected. This shift led many government agencies to accelerate their planned digital transformations, which were long overdue but often took years to implement. Since the public sector has traditionally been more hesitant to adopt new technologies, the relative overnight transition during the past year has been breathtaking.

If the past year has taught us anything about technology, it’s that digital capabilities are no longer just ‘nice to have’ – they are imperative. The realities of operating during the pandemic have forced governments worldwide to reimagine how they work and serve their constituents.

Now that 2020 is in the rearview mirror, it is likely that most Americans hope that the technological innovations spurred by the crisis will remain, helping make our public institutions more responsive and more resilient for years to come.

Cloud Services Make Digital A Reality

Rapid innovation in cloud-based platforms—computing systems available on demand and not managed by the end-user—have allowed private sector businesses to deliver innovative technologies and user experiences that were unimaginable until recently. Innovative technologies have provided consumers with a remarkable level of interconnection while the services they rely on are delivered through a seamless digital experience.

Adopting cloud-based services that are pre-built and secure has allowed many state and federal agencies to stand-up critical systems in record time. Some of the common uses of these services include enterprise contact tracing, CRM technology to disburse emergency loans and grants, and enabling employee wellness checks that are essential to back-to-work plans.

Moreover, cloud-based services from industry-leading providers are safe and trusted solutions that can be used to protect even the most sensitive customer data. Companies like Salesforce are continually working with their customers to strengthen and harden their defenses to stay ahead of evolving threats and help prevent attacks.

Even now, these same platforms hold more untapped potential for the public sector to increase its digital footprint. The problem is that many state and federal agencies still rely on older legacy systems that are costly to operate and maintain and leave little or no funding for innovation and improvement. Not to mention that their outmoded systems are often far less customer-friendly and less effective than modern cloud-based technologies.

COVID-19 Opens A Rare Window for Rapid Advancement

One hopeful prospect coming out of this crisis has been the rapid adoption of digital technology that has placed public institutions years ahead of where they otherwise would have been. The need to innovate and quickly launch new systems during the pandemic led many government organizations to look past their legacy systems and toward the low-code or no-code applications offered on cloud platforms.

The modernization of public sector technology started nearly a decade ago, but the pandemic has led many agencies to rapidly speed up their planned conversion to digital services and platforms. Amid all the negative aspects of the pandemic, this is one significant piece of good news and means the government can serve constituents more effectively while costing taxpayers less.

As nations worldwide begin to stabilize and adapt to these circumstances, public sector leaders have a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on this momentum and identify new ways to incorporate more robust digital tools into their operations. For instance, many services that have historically been conducted in-person using paper forms, including unemployment benefits and public health services, have been converted to new digital-first service points.

Solving Old Problems in New Ways

One notable example of this transition is the digitization of licensing, permitting, and inspection services at the state level. As businesses were forced to adapt their operations, it became clear that state and local governments needed to provide quick and easy access to new and existing permits. These permits would allow barbers to cut hair on sidewalks and restaurants to expand their outdoor seating into the public right-of-way. In many instances, the accessibility and ease of obtaining these permits made the difference between whether a small business stayed open or closed forever.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, I’m inspired to see how many government agencies and public employees are expediting the pace of transformation and moving us toward all-digital delivery of services. The rapid adoption of digital technology is not only confined to routine functions but has also become a vital component of the emergency response to the ongoing public health crisis itself. For example, as COVID-19 began to spread rapidly in March, it quickly became evident that we needed a modern approach to contact tracing.

While the notion of contact tracing has been around for a long time, the technologies that support it have rapidly advanced over the last decade. Some states, like Rhode Island, seized on the opportunity to employ modern tools and technology to boost their manual contact tracing efforts by utilizing cloud-based services.

Before partnering with Salesforce, Rhode Island was using paper-based contact tracing. Using that method meant that tracking one infected person might mean speaking directly to dozens of people, in-person, at their homes or on the phone. That process is time-consuming, error-prone and slow, and once you have thousands or tens of thousands of cases, it is unsustainable.

That was until the state transitioned its contact tracing system from an on-premises solution to Salesforce’s Customer 360 for Government. It gives the Rhode Island Department of Health a comprehensive record of COVID-19 cases across the state and allows for a more integrated and adaptable solution to the pandemic.

This ability to stand up new applications quickly — in some cases overnight — is one of the most profound innovations offered by cloud-based systems. Platforms such as Salesforce offer a set of building blocks that allow organizations to mix different services and applications and combine them to develop innovative solutions to achieve their mission objectives. By utilizing the ‘power of the platform,’ organizations can create powerful applications that can quickly solve real-world problems without new infrastructure or coding.

This level of flexibility and speed is paying dividends in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. One more timely example of how these platforms are being deployed to turn the tide against COVID-19 is how they are being used to distribute and track the newly-available vaccines.

Digital Vaccines Management 

This last fall, Salesforce rapidly developed applications built on our CRM platform to aid vaccine distribution in the U.S. and worldwide. These innovative solutions are helping governments and organizations in their efforts to mobilize, manage and scale vaccine administration efficiently and effectively. For example, using technology to track vaccine distribution on the ground has allowed federal, state and local governments in the U.S. to focus on vaccine efficacy during transport and help ensure equitable delivery to the communities and individuals most in need.

Due to the growth of digital services in banking, shopping and other aspects of their lives, consumers have already become accustomed to the all-digital future. They now expect to access user-friendly platforms in every part of their lives. This shift in the consumer-focused application experience will continue to put pressure on the public sector to keep up with the private sector. It is cloud-based solutions that offer governments the most accessible and most reliable means to achieve this same level of innovation.

There is no denying that overhauling outdated legacy systems and kicking off a digital transformation is a challenge for any organization, particularly for government agencies during a global pandemic. Even so, our current situation presents an immense opportunity for the public sector to reimagine how they deliver services and products while preserving mission readiness. Cloud infrastructure and platforms that are implemented now to solve the difficult challenges raised by this crisis can pay dividends in the future and provide long-term benefits to government employees and constituents for years to come.

Casey Coleman is Senior Vice President of Global Government Digital Transformation at Salesforce and former CIO for the United States GSA and can be reached at @caseycoleman.

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