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Public tech holding up to Covid-19 crush

Peter Griffin, contributor. 17 April 2020, 2:23 pm

It's a tale of two technology resilience scenarios as government departments around the world are swamped with citizens seeking information, health or financial assistance.

The United States, which has seen 22 million citizens file for the unemployment benefit since March 14, 13.5 per cent of the country's labour force, has scrambled to shore up its federal IT systems under the load.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, the flood of applications for financial relief has placed enormous strain on the Department of Labour and individual states particularly hard hit by coronavirus, such as New York, have struggled to keep their online systems functioning effectively.

Across the US, public servants have been operating virtually from their homes, processing applications and operating virtual call centres using IP telephony software. In most countries, the government's focus has been on keeping critical online services functioning, which has meant boosting capacity both in connection sizes and cloud computing capacity.

In Australia, the federal government's MyGov portal crashed as the crush of newly unemployed was added to when a provision was made allowing citizens to dip into their superannuation to the tune of A$10,000.

Locally, e-government services have largely held up well, despite some initially apparent capacity issues were ironed out in March. Some users have complained of slow processing turnaround times for wage subsidy applications, but that is to be expected given the unprecedented demand. The systems for processing the applications have continued to function.

IRD recently went live with a major new component of its business transformation programme despite the increased workload created by Covid-19. Elsewhere, we have seen government departments move quickly to develop new services and websites, such as, the primary public information source throughout the crisis. 

Technology vendors around Wellington report increased work with government clients to help boost their critical IT systems and to advise on security arrangements as thousands of workers shift to laptops on home networks.

IT staff in Local government bodies have also had to put in extra hours to keep information, and in one case, the water flowing. 

Auckland Council's water infrastructure provider, Watercare, deployed over 300 laptops in three days as staff began working from home and had to undertake a long-scheduled upgrade to Windows 7 themselves.

"Watercare's strategy was then to equip 700 Watercare staff to work from home, enabling the remainder of essential workers who needed to be running our plants and other sites, where physical presence is still needed," Watercare's head of digital operations, Adam Gower, told CIO.

In some countries, the generally slow pace of online government services development has been accelerated massively out of sheer necessity, leading some to argue for governments to seize the opportunity for a push into a greater level of online service delivery.

In Malaysia, IT experts have suggested the crisis is an opportunity for the country to reimagine how healthcare and education are delivered and could be an opportunity to move to more flexible working for public servants.

"The public service should consider instituting working from home at least one day in a work week," writes Dr. John Antony Xavier of the Putra Business School.

"Such an arrangement will equally save time and expense for the government and its workers," writes Xavier.

"The public service should grasp the nettle to scale greater heights in the 'new normal'. It calls for a Falstaffian appetite for digital solutions in service delivery."



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