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

By on 26/01/2022 | Updated on 28/01/2022

From tracking apps to continent-wide collaboration, public and civil services around the world have responded to the coronavirus pandemic with a series of impressive new tools and approaches

Faced with an unprecedented public health emergency, civil servants raced to protect citizens and the economy from the effects of COVID-19, providing new services and expanding existing ones at a rate previously thought impossible.

Here, senior civil service leaders from six countries tell Global Government Forum what they see as the most impressive project related to pandemic response and recovery.

Estonia commends EU’s Digital COVID Certificate  

For me, the biggest COVID-related innovation must be the introduction of the EU-wide Digital COVID Certificate. What we are witnessing is a significant achievement of building an international trust network in the framework of a topic that has every potential to be divisive instead of uniting. Yet we have managed to come together and clearly state that we trust each other, the doctors of other members, and the certificates that they provide. As a result, we have created the key to reverse the effects of initial COVID-19 mistrust between states and are coming back together stronger than ever. Hopefully, we will soon see further developments of a global digital vaccination passport replacing the yellow passport intercontinental travellers have been forced to carry.

Taimar Peterkop, secretary of state, Estonia

Cross-jurisdictional collaboration in Australia

One of the most successful responses Australia initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic was the creation of the National Cabinet. The National Cabinet brought together the leaders of each Australian state and territory with the prime minister to collectively discuss and progress the COVID response with a focus on cross-jurisdictional collaboration and consistency.

Within the last 12 months, National Cabinet has facilitated previously unseen levels of innovation and coordination across federal, state and local governments. Public servants across jurisdictions have worked alongside communities, health professionals and businesses to ensure the success of Australia’s vaccine rollout and the strong recovery of our economy. Australia now has one of the highest COVID vaccination rates in the world and one of the lowest death rates.

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

The evolution of Singapore’s tracking app

“The TraceTogether (TT) app continued to evolve throughout 2021 with the shift towards living with endemic COVID-19. When we first launched TraceTogether in March 2020 it was a pure contact tracing app, which we supplemented with a hardware alternative (the TT Token) in September 2020. Last year, after the government made check-ins with either the TT app or Token mandatory at most public venues, the team had to fully integrate TT with Singapore’s check-in system SafeEntry. The TT app has also been updated to display users’ vaccination and test statuses in the form of ‘green’ and ‘white’ passes. The role of the TT app has expanded to the point where it has become Singapore’s one-stop app for COVID-19 response and recovery.”

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

A helping hand for New Zealand’s SMEs

It’s no secret that COVID-19 accelerated government digital transformation. As well as being the secretary of internal affairs, I’m also the government chief digital officer, and a big part of our work at Te Tari Taiwhenua Department of Internal Affairs is to drive a more unified digital public service.

When COVID-19 hit New Zealand shores, it brought into focus the need to tackle digital inclusion – that’s about ensuring people can participate in the digital world. Government agencies, private organisations and NGO sectors are all working together to address this, alongside communities and iwi representatives who understand the specific needs of their population.

Our department administered the COVID-19 Recovery SMEs Digital Skills Fund to respond to a digital gap identified for people who run small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Māori, Pacific and disabled communities. Nearly 1,000 small to medium-sized enterprises have new digital skills and capabilities, thanks to the Digital Skills Fund. The fund was successful in addressing symptoms of digital exclusion for SMEs in the target communities, as well as identifying underlying structural issues.

We learned a lot about the importance of trusted future partners, working in the communities that SMEs come from. We found that tailored, flexible approaches work. It’s vital to engage with partners who have strong, enduring relationships and networks in their communities, and can deliver to their specific needs.

It’s clear that addressing significant digital capability gaps takes time, and sustained investment is required. The problem is more complex than the need to acquire ‘digital skills’ alone, and these other barriers can pre-empt the acquisition of digital skills. For example, many SMEs need support with developing basic business skills such as planning, budgeting and forecasting alongside building their digital competence.

One common denominator that emerged is that small business success is about more than just the ‘bottom line’; it is about contribution to community.

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

Keeping track of infection rates in the UK

It’s really difficult to pick one innovative project related to COVID-19. At the Office of National Statistics, multiple lockdowns have forced us to think on our feet and increase our use of new and faster forms of data, instead of just relying on traditional survey-related information. These new sources, such as anonymised mobility data from mobile phone providers and anonymised credit/debit card transaction data have provided vital, up-to-the-minute insights on trends and behaviours throughout the pandemic. 

The largest COVID-related project for us, however, is the COVID-19 Infection Survey, which was set up in a matter of weeks at the start of the pandemic, to provide us with a weekly picture of infections and antibodies in our population. This was a massive operation which under normal circumstances would have taken months to set up. To date, we’ve achieved over six million swab samples and the survey is one of the most visited pieces of information the ONS produces.

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

Support for the workforce in the Philippines

The Philippine Civil Service Commission (CSC), the central HR agency of the Philippine bureaucracy, introduced a number of alternative work arrangements to protect the government workforce during the pandemic. These included remote working, staggered working hours, a four-day working week, a skeleton workforce, or a combination of the four work arrangements.

We offered support mechanisms such as stress debriefing and provision of reasonable funds to cover expenses of employees during work-from-home arrangements subject to budgeting, accounting, and auditing rules and regulations. And we issued interim guidelines on the use of leave credits for absences due to quarantine and/or treatment relative to COVID-19 and due to COVID-19 vaccination and/or adverse events following immunisation.

We also issued guidelines on the technologies that could be used to enable government recruitment processes to continue amid the limitations brought about by the pandemic, including the use of video conferencing for interviews and the use of e-signature software by appointing authorities.  

In addition, guidelines were issued on the digitisation of our quasi-judicial functions. These provided, for example, technical and operational standards to ensure that virtual hearings before the CSC and regional offices via video conferencing would closely resemble in-person proceedings including maintaining fairness, order, and confidentiality.

The CSC leads a taskforce on public service continuity, which requires all government agencies to submit a plan that aims to ensure the continuous delivery of service to the public in any disruption – be it a pandemic, natural disaster, civil disturbance or other events.

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

We’d like to hear from you
What’s the most innovative civil service project related to COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery that you’ve either been involved in or heard about?

If you’d like to share it, please leave a comment below or email us at [email protected]

This is part of the Leaders’ Roundup series. Read more: Modernising government HR, co-created policies, and personalised services: public servants share their 2022 reform priorities

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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