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The Pandemic Has Accelerated Government Innovation

It’s also changing—or should be changing—the nature of agency IT departments.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged in early 2020, billions of people around the world changed behavior virtually overnight. Enterprises compressed a decade of digital transformation into a single year in response. For federal agencies, this required leaders to accelerate implementation of new operating models and double down on technology solutions to meet a host of new requirements.  

As we all experienced first-hand, the implications of COVID-19 were profound. According to our research, 97% of federal executives say it was an unprecedented stress test for their agencies. And a vast majority of these federal executives—79%—agreed that their agency’s employees had just faced the largest and fastest human behavioral change in history due to COVID-19.

While COVID-19 remains an enormous national challenge, we are beginning to consider what a post-pandemic era might entail. Society has started to reopen. Organizations are planning what their post-pandemic workplace models will look like. And many of us are taking stock of what we’ve been through, what we learned, and where that experience may take us. 

Despite the great trauma the pandemic has unleashed across the world, there are lessons that apply to all of us, including federal agency managers and workforces, that we would be wise to heed going forward. Three that immediately come to mind are:

1. We’ve dramatically shifted our thinking around how and where we work. While increasing in adoption, there remained skepticism about remote work in government before the spring of 2020. When COVID hit, agencies very quickly sent large percentages of their workforces home and discovered they could be as productive—in some cases more productive—when employees have more flexibility in how they manage their workloads. 

2. Government agencies proved they can be resilient and transform quickly during emergencies. When the economy came to an abrupt halt in the spring of 2020, federal agencies mobilized to execute a series of enormous relief bills, including the CARES Act, and appropriations bills that dispersed trillions of dollars across scores of federal programs and agencies. They accelerated modernization efforts to support the large numbers of employees who were suddenly working from home and to quickly transition their mission-supporting operations to more virtualized models. 

3. COVID didn’t just accelerate the modernization journeys of federal agencies, it also validated them. In a world where change and disruption are happening faster than ever, agencies need the ability to bend and not break, to see around corners with data-derived insights, to approach problems with an innovation mindset, and to move faster before small problems become big problems. 

What has made these things possible is technology, and the ability of federal leaders and their staffs to embrace technology as a powerful enabler of capability, performance, efficiency, and resilience. Government agencies can now be more confident in accelerating their modernization plans. But, as we have seen with recent ransomware attacks, agency leaders also must ensure cybersecurity remains a top priority to protect those investments and that infrastructure. 

Another trend accelerated by the pandemic is that technology is not just making organizations more capable; individual employees are now empowered to be more capable and work more autonomously. Tools like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Webex allow employees to collaborate regardless of their location. Moreover, employees today can easily create the technology tools they need, whether it’s dashboards to spot important data-derived insights, robotic process automation (RPA) bots to automate repetitive manual tasks, or custom web or mobile apps built with low-code platforms.  

Just as COVID sparked a sweeping transformation in terms of where we work, so too will the emergence of powerful new tools that democratize IT across the entire enterprise transform how we work. 

This should hardly be surprising. A year ago, Accenture Federal Services issued our annual Federal Technology Vision report, which highlights key trends that federal agencies should be mindful of as they navigate the world around them. Perhaps the most important trend we outlined in that 2020 report was what we called “Innovation DNA,” which described how leading organizations in the public sector and commercial arenas were approaching the challenge of creating engines for continuous innovation across the enterprise. 

This year’s report, Federal Technology Vision 2021, which we just released, explains how the emergence of democratized IT is now fueling the appetite of many organizations as they develop their Innovation DNAs. We call this trend “I, Technologist,” and it explains how democratized IT is becoming a critical enabler of more innovation-centered enterprises, according to a vast majority (89%) of federal executives.  

But in doing so, democratized IT is also changing the very nature of IT departments within their organizations. The lines between who does IT and who doesn’t are blurring and they should be reexamined. Now that mission-supporting and business-supporting employees have the wherewithal to create the tech tools they need at will to meet their individual requirements, IT shops will need to continue to accelerate the pivot from a service delivery function to becoming true partners and collaborators with their mission and business counterparts. 

And as mission and business teams develop effective new tools and processes, IT departments will need to help ensure those tools are secure and scale them for increased value across the enterprise. This new paradigm also will require that agencies place far more priority on training their workforces to think more like technologists so they can better leverage the new technologies and capabilities available to them. 

Now that we’ve proven we can change and transform and create new value at this unprecedented scale and speed, the question becomes where do we go from here? COVID was a dark chapter for us all, but it also revealed a lot about what we are capable of. We know that change and disruption are constant, so let’s tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow through innovation, resilience, and a more proactive posture. We know the capability is there, we know the risks are there and we know the value is there. What are we waiting for?

Christopher Copeland is managing director and the chief technology officer at Accenture Federal Services.