COVID-19 the catalyst: public service leaders explain how the pandemic has changed government

By on 09/02/2022 | Updated on 09/02/2022
Photo by Antoni Shkraba Production via Pexels

From building internal tech capabilities to embracing hybrid working, leaders examine how civil services have changed as a result of the coronavirus crisis

When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, public and civil services around the world had to deliver a suite of services designed to help citizens and businesses ride out the worst of the pandemic whilst at the same adopting new and rapidly evolving working practices.

Here, leaders share what they and their colleagues have learnt about the civil service and what’s possible since the pandemic began, and how they aim to ensure the positive changes that have come about as a result will endure.

Australia’s APS Surge Reserve

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Public Service undertook the largest ever mobilisation of employees in Australia’s history. The APS Surge Reserve, made up of volunteer public servants from across the service, saw more than 2,500 public service staff deployed into areas of critical need. 

The APS Surge Reserve is a positive change that will endure beyond the pandemic. It will allow the Australian government to rapidly mobilise staff at short notice to quickly support Australians during and immediately after a major disaster or emergency. Staff benefit from gaining experience beyond their usual roles and develop lifelong skills and connections with colleagues. This camaraderie and solutions focus exemplifies our adaptability, determination and ability to work as one enterprise with a unified purpose. These qualities will be critical to the progress and success of our ambitious public service reform program over the coming years.

Stephanie Foster, deputy secretary governance, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia

Cross-government data sharing in the UK

From the inclusion of more de-identified data from other government departments in our existing surveys, to the creation of completely new cross-government projects like the COVID-19 Infection Survey, we’ve seen the kind of rapid insights that are possible from increased data linkage and collaboration across the civil service. Thankfully, we were already doing some of this work before COVID-19 struck. Now we intend to build on it, and what we’ve achieved during the pandemic, as we lead on the new cross-government Integrated Data Service (IDS) which will ensure a wider variety of robust data is readily available in one place to be linked and used for vital research. 

Alison Pritchard, deputy national statistician and director general for data capability at the Office for National Statistics (ONS)

A ‘commitment to agile mindsets’ in New Zealand

New Zealand’s COVID-19 response significantly changed the operating environment for the public service and provided insights into what digitally-enabled operations and business functions could look like, proving that many critical government services can run digitally and be operated remotely.

In late 2020, the Department for Internal Affairs commissioned research on digital insights from the COVID-19 pandemic response. Of the 50 agencies, system and thought leaders interviewed, we were able to paint a picture of what digital capabilities are required for readiness and what’s needed to progress a unified and digitally enabled public service.

The research showed that different agency capabilities impact on resilience and responsiveness and affect the public service as a whole. The most resilient and responsive agencies during the COVID-19 response typically had a higher level of digital capability.

We also saw that digital capability is more than having devices, network hardware, software and servers. It is a commitment to agile behaviours and mindsets. It’s also about the capability of your people including your leaders, and the way you think about your customer, the problems you are trying to solve and the outcomes you seek to deliver.

The research resulted in a detailed report and four case studies, which you can read more about here.

Paul James, secretary for internal affairs, government chief digital officer, and secretary for local government, New Zealand

Renewed focus on digital transformation in the Philippines

As we re-examine the state of the Philippine bureaucracy amid a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment, and in aid of our vision to be globally recognised as a centre of excellence for strategic human resource and organisation development, the Civil Service Commission (CSC) saw the need for digital transformation in the bureaucracy. This was anchored by an Act which requires agencies to re-engineer and streamline systems and processes towards more citizen-centric and efficient governance.

We believe that digital transformation is not only inevitable but highly necessary for public sector organisations to efficiently and effectively perform their mandates amid a rapidly changing environment and highly complex governance challenges. The CSC hopes to lead the way, if not perform at a par with equally-determined government agencies in developing or adopting the right technologies for this purpose.

Alicia dela Rosa Bala, chairperson, Civil Service Commission, Philippines 

Supporting regional development through remote working in Estonia

We have witnessed that working from anywhere across the country is possible. Compared to most EU states Estonia used general guidelines to work from home rather scarcely, but today hybrid meetings have become a norm in the civil service. This facilitates the trend that public service hiring should not be location specific and therefore supports the development of more distant regions. The trend is also set as a goal in our State Reform Action Plan and will therefore continue to evolve as a norm after the global pandemic ends. As a result, civil service specialists no longer need to prioritise moving to the capital region and can live even in locations hours away from their government-provided physical workplace.

Taimar Peterkop, secretary of state, Estonia

Building internal tech capabilities in Singapore


GovTech has shown repeatedly that we are able to overcome challenges quickly and effectively because of the foundation that we put in place before the pandemic started. Most government technology organisations are really project management organisations – most governments probably outsource 95% of everything we do. One of the first things I did when I joined the public service in 2014 was to see how we could build deep internal capabilities in technology so that we can develop our own strategic applications for Singapore as well as become smarter buyers. I started with seven engineers and we now have more than 1,000 working in the government. Along with creating engineering capabilities, we also had to create an engineering culture. So, we looked toward the Googles and Facebooks of the world to try and replicate a flat, non-hierarchical structure where the most junior guy and the most senior guy were both able to make things happen. We were very fortunate to have a strong base of in-house talent and expertise when the pandemic hit, which allowed us to develop solutions such as the TraceTogether app very quickly.

Chan Cheow Hoe, government chief digital technology officer and deputy chief executive, GovTech, Singapore

We’d like to hear from you

What have you and your colleagues learnt about the public service and what’s possible since the coronavirus pandemic began? If you’d like to share, please comment below or email us at [email protected]

This is part of the Leaders’ Roundup series. See more:

Modernising government HR, co-created policies, and personalised services: public servants share their 2022 reform priorities

From response to recovery: public service leaders reveal their standout COVID-19 innovations

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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