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Recent global events have shown that digital technology and data have become indispensable tools for governments as they adapt to changes across their organizations. Many government leaders are taking stock and imagining a future with the most attentive, helpful citizen services. And many are recognizing that a strong digital ecosystem is the foundation for that future. In this 3-part series, I will be focusing on my experience with government and the new solutions and best practices they are rapidly adopting to deal with the extraordinary challenge of responding to the crisis. In a time of global upheaval, new opportunities make a move to digital transformation more urgent.

Responding to the immediate crisis

This first installment will focus on how governments are managing the immediate crisis, securely coordinating the first response, and managing immediate public health challenges.

In my role as Worldwide Industry Director for Government, I engage with public sector organizations across the world daily. It has been truly remarkable for me to see how governments everywhere have risen to the challenge of responding to citizen needs during this time of crisis, often adopting and deploying cloud-based solutions for the very first time. It has not been in recent memory that governments have been called upon to act so quickly. They have had to deliver information to every segment of the population within a country and work rapidly across multiple departments and agencies in order to deliver a unified response to a global public health crisis. A task made even more challenging as government employees increasingly work from home during periods of lockdown.

Remote working government employees everywhere need access to tools that help them securely access key systems, enable streamlined access to data, and enable effective communication tools that work across multiple agencies. At Microsoft, it quickly became apparent that we needed to curate our tools and solutions to help our customers respond to the challenges that they were facing. To learn more about our overall COVID-19 response, visit Responding to COVID-19 together.

Over the last three months, we have seen that all levels of government (city, local, regional, and national) have had to deal with numerous challenges during this immediate crisis phase. In this blog we focus on the four most common scenarios that we observed that governments were responding to, specifically:

  1. Working from home. Enabling government employees to access systems, communicate and perform their duties as if they were in the office.
  2. Engaging with citizens. Deploying solutions that were able to deal with significant increases in outbound communications to citizens and conversely scalable solutions to service inbound citizen requests.
  3. Situational awareness. Using tools that provided methods to capture, consolidate, analyze, and subsequently provide actionable data.
  4. Keeping secure. Ensuring that systems and data were being kept secure and compliant with local standards.

Working from home

The instructions given to citizens to self-isolate and remain at home also applied to non-essential government employees. Over a matter of weeks, working remotely has become a critical requirement for modern government with many powered by the following tools:

Microsoft Teams

A fundamental tool that has seen a large increase in usage is Microsoft Teams. Integrated seamlessly with Microsoft 365, Teams enables individuals, teams, and organizations to continue to meet, share, and communicate via chat, voice, and video in a secure and scalable platform.

Governments across the globe have embraced Teams as a key solution and 75 million daily active users are being served each day in Teams.

Windows Virtual Desktop

For the management of services, infrastructure, and public works, government employees need to go beyond the realms of standard desktop software solutions to specific engineering workstations and utility and service dashboards that are often beyond the capabilities of their own laptops. Through the use of Windows Virtual Desktop, government employees are able to access their office-based desktops and workstation PCs from home. It provides a secure method to access legacy applications, standardized windows desktop environments, and virtualized applications for government.

Engaging with Citizens

With the workforce enabled remotely, citizen engagement and communication has become fundamental to daily operations. Governments need to contact and respond to unprecedented numbers of citizen enquires and ensure effective communication with field-based workers. Several cloud-based solutions help to manage engagement:

Internal Government Communications⁠—Blackberry Athoc

Blackberry Athoc allows for secure communication at times of crisis particularly in the management of critical infrastructure and staff that need to be supported in field roles.  Athoc enables real-time visibility into the safety status of personnel and if required, can issue communications via SMS or email to all personnel simultaneously.

Citizen Communications AI-based solutions⁠—Chatbots

AI-based chatbots have been rapidly deployed to support huge increases in public health enquires. AI-Bots can be trained to provide information on any topic. As an example, Microsoft has collaborated with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States to provide a COVID-19 bot to help the center respond to a huge influx of enquires, and provide intelligent responses to the most common queries, directing citizens to further information and assistance.

New bots can be easily created using Microsoft’s specific frameworks for healthcare or partners’ technical frameworks, such as those provided by https://botcore.ai/.

Mass SMS citizen communication⁠—Twilio

Twillio is a cloud-based communication platform that developers can use to deliver citizen engagement and messaging. It can provide a framework to automate SMS messages for notifications of important information, verifying information, and confirming activities. For example, helping coordinate occupancy levels for appointments or confirming receipt of information for a form submission process.

Crisis Communications—Microsoft Power Platform

Using Power Apps, Power BI, and Power Automate you can customize, extend, and build apps that leverage Office 365 and Dynamics 365. The Power Apps Platform gives you the ability to build low code apps, rapidly. Allowing you to build new applications with new and existing data sources. For example, many governments have built apps to help manage the coordination of public health activities such as scheduling cleaning crews in public spaces. These apps can be shared as templates and we have created a crisis communications sample template you can use to coordinate information-sharing and collaboration in response to evolving conditions.

Situational Awareness

Gaining situational awareness is necessary to make real-time informed decisions in government. Dashboards that combine both live sensor data with other sources including captured and collated reporting can help decision-makers to develop new insights on the current situation. Two key areas we see now are:

Operational Dashboards

Partners such as LTI and their Advanced Operations Center dashboard provide a comprehensive way to ingest IoT data, live camera data, and other data sources to provide operational insights.

Contagion Mapping

The Power BI team has created a COVID-19 tracking sample that enables US state and local governments to publish or customize an interactive report about COVID-19. Find out more about the samples in our documentation.

Keeping secure

Many governments are deploying remote access solutions at an accelerated pace to meet mission requirements and the demands of their citizens. This results in potential opportunities for new security risks to arise.

Our threat intelligence shows that COVID-19 themed threats are often retreads of existing attacks that have been slightly altered to tie to the pandemic. We are seeing a change in messaging by cybercriminals, rather than a surge in attacks. These attacks are settling into the normal ebb and flow of the threat environment. Read more about our analysis of security threats related to COVID-19.

For those working remotely, protecting data, and maintaining compliance in a remote work environment can be challenging. The Microsoft 365 team has assembled guidance on how to follow best practices.

A transition to a new normal

This brief tour through our solutions illustrates how responding to the immediate crisis has placed demands on all of us to adapt to remote work and quickly engage with volumes of data we have not previously had to deal with. However, this immediate response phase will shortly pass, and we will soon see governments responding to new challenges. In our next post, we will look at solutions that help deliver continuity of operations, enabling all levels of government, including judicial systems, to function remotely while leveraging new approaches for cross-agency collaboration.

You will find the latest information, updates, and resources from Microsoft at Responding to COVID-19 together.

Learn more about Microsoft in Government.