Covid-19 is spurring the digitisation of government

The Economist: “…Neither health care nor Britain is unique in relying heavily on paper. By preventing face-to-face meetings and closing the offices where bureaucrats shuffle documents, the pandemic has revealed how big a problem that is. Around the world, it has been impossible to get a court hearing, a passport or get married while locked down, since they all still require face-to-face interactions. Registering a business has been slower or impossible. Courts are a mess; elections a worrying prospect.

Governments that have long invested in digitising their systems endured less disruption. Those that have not are discovering how useful it would be if a lot more official business took place online.

Covid-19 has brought many aspects of bureaucratic life to a halt. In England at least 73,400 weddings had to be delayed—not just the ceremony, also the legal part—reckons the Office for National Statistics. In France courts closed in March for all but essential services, and did not reopen until late May. Most countries have extended visas for foreigners trapped by the pandemic, but consular services stopped almost everywhere. In America green-card applications were halted in April; they restarted in June. In Britain appointments to take biometric details of people applying for permanent residency ceased in March and only resumed partly in June.

Some applications cannot be delayed and there the pandemic has revealed the creakiness of even rich countries’ bureaucracies. As Florida was locking down, huge queues formed outside government offices to get the paper forms needed to sign up for unemployment insurance. In theory the state has a digital system, but it was so poorly set up that many could not access it. At the start of the pandemic the website crashed for days. Even several months later people trying to apply had to join a digital queue and wait for hours before being able to log in. In Alabama when government offices in Montgomery, the state capital, reopened, people camped outside, hoping to see an official who might help with their claims.

Where services did exist online, their inadequacies became apparent. Digital unemployment-insurance systems collapsed under a wave of new claimants. At the end of March the website of the INPS, the Italian social-security office, received 300,000 applications for welfare in a single day. The website crashed. Some of those who could access it were shown other people’s data. The authorities blamed not just the volume of applicants but also hackers trying to put in fraudulent claims. Criminals were a problem in America too. In the worst-affected state, Washington, $550m-650m, or one dollar in every eight, was paid out to fraudsters who exploited an outdated system of identity verification (about $300m was recovered)….

the pandemic has revealed that governments need to operate in new ways. This may mean the introduction of proper digital identities, which many countries lack. Track-and-trace systems require governments to know who their citizens are and to be able to contact them reliably. Estonia’s officials can do so easily; Britain’s and America’s cannot. In China in order to board public transport or enter their own apartment buildings people have to show QR codes on their phones to verify that they have not been to a virus hotspot recently….(More)”.