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The Need to Institutionalize Government’s Newfound Agility

In responding to COVID-19, governments have been forced to move far more quickly and flexibly. What they've learned will prove invaluable as they prepare for the crises of the future.

An autonomous delivery robot seen from the side with both its doors open.
Over the past several months, the coronavirus crisis has laid bare the cost of rigidity, requiring governments, businesses and individuals alike to swiftly ditch their old ways and adapt to new ones. Faced with a global pandemic, government agencies worldwide have modified regulations, repurposed infrastructure, reassigned workers and embraced technology with unprecedented speed.

To thrive in a post-COVID world, governments should now institutionalize this kind of response and shift their cultures permanently to encourage flexibility, adaptability and constant learning. In other words, they should develop and nurture agility.

Agility, as outlined in a new Deloitte study, requires flexible policy- and decision-making, resource-sharing (both within government and across public, private and nonprofit sectors) and more adaptable structures. An agile organization is able to rapidly adjust policy and make decisions that account for and adapt to changing circumstances.

The pandemic has provided ample opportunities to see this in action. Korea, for instance, relaxed manufacturing standards amid a shortage of medical waste disposal containers, cutting the inspection time for such products in half. California regulators allowed tech startup Nuro to begin testing driverless delivery vehicles, a potential boon for contactless commerce.

In contrast to traditional policymaking, which occurs in a vacuum and often conceals problems until they are too late to fix, this sort of responsive policy development allows for governments to meet shifting needs and demands by identifying and addressing issues as they arise. And in many cases, policymakers can prevent problems entirely, using such tools as data analytics, artificial intelligence, scenarios and simulations to identify them before they occur, anticipate developments and test-drive various responses.

One example of this occurred in Taiwan, where the government acted swiftly to curb the spread of COVID-19 before the virus had even been identified. The country began monitoring travel from Wuhan, China, in early January at the first report of what would later be identified as a new coronavirus, creating a database that enabled hospitals to assess patient risk based on travel history as the virus began to spread. And in May, after the virus had become a pandemic, the United Kingdom's financial agency introduced a digital sandbox program, where private firms could test-drive potential coronavirus solutions and regulators could observe their efforts.

The popup ecosystems governments have turned to, partnering with the private sector to address supply shortages and bring aid to those in need, illustrate another aspect of agility. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, has relied on rideshare companies to deliver food to isolated and high-risk veterans during the pandemic as well as to provide transport to medical appointments and shelters. In Taiwan, the government partnered with private companies to quickly ramp up mask production and streamline distribution amid shortages.

Other governments repurposed existing infrastructure to suit the circumstances, such as in France, where high-speed trains were converted into ambulances and used to transport COVID-19 patients from areas with hospital-bed shortages to those with more capacity. India similarly converted trains into portable isolation wards.

Agile government means moving with more speed than we typically associate with the public sector. The United Arab Emirates' Government Accelerators initiative, for example, is running challenge competitions in which "acceleration teams" of frontline staff work toward goals that could improve citizens' lives in 100 days or less. So far, the UAE has conducted three of the 100-day competitions, among nearly three dozen challenges that have engaged close to 1,200 government workers and private-sector employees.

An agile organization should be flexible with all of its resources — including its human ones. That means a willingness to reassign workers, relax hiring regulations, adapt to remote work and, generally, let go of the "normal" way of doing things when it comes to personnel.

New York demonstrated this in March, as coronavirus cases in the state continued to climb and hospitals began to reach capacity. After the governor issued a public call for medical professionals, the state quickly amassed a volunteer force of more than 40,000 health-care workers, students and retirees to increase surge capacity at overburdened hospitals.

The coronavirus crisis has shown that government agencies are capable of adjusting regulations at unprecedented speeds, repurposing existing resources and reimagining their workplaces. This agility will prove invaluable in the aftermath of COVID-19, when agencies will need to continue to manage their ongoing operations while preparing for future crises. Those crises are sure to come, and just as with the coronavirus pandemic, change will be inevitable.

Executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights.
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