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COVID-19’s arrival in New Zealand in March 2020 coincided with preparations for the Lab’s June 2020 closure.

Why is the Lab closing?

COVID-19’s arrival in New Zealand in March 2020 coincided with preparations for the Lab’s June closure. The decision to close followed the formation of the Digital Public Service branch within the Department of Internal Affairs, which had provided secretariat services and oversight of what was otherwise an all-of-Government facility.

Formation of the DPS branch was to ensure DIA had an operational structure to enable it to deliver on the Government’s new Strategy for a Digital Public Service.

One of the lessons learned in the Lab while working with agencies to deliver integrated services, was that a way to accelerate delivery of integrated services without the significant barriers of single-agency governance and funding structures was required. The DPS branch is now talking with other agencies about how to address these challenges at a system-wide level.

The learnings, tools and innovative ways of working that the Lab had prototyped look likely to be harnessed for whatever mechanism is eventually decided.

The DPS Branch continues to support agencies who don’t have in-house service designers and will facilitate the development of integrated services where possible. Other DPS staff will help agencies develop their digital strategies, investment plans and work through privacy considerations.

Approaching June 30, the Lab’s in-flight work was transitioned to the agencies leading each piece. Some of the team were able to continue their work within DIA. The remaining work stopped.

As COVID hit, the Lab team continued its work but was still able to add extra value…

Pivoting the team’s skills - and doing some heavy lifting

  • Team members who had already transitioned into the DPS when lockdown occurred moved quickly to provide support and coaching to managers and teams. They introduced workflow management tools such as Trello that enabled work to occur more iteratively and gave staff skills to better prioritise tasks that were streaming in from across government.
  • Staff still based in the Lab, but working from home, continued with the Integrated Services Work Programme to ensure this didn’t get dropped during the transition period or by the disruption caused by COVID.
  • To a certain degree, activity also became anticipatory. Team members looked ahead to what might be needed.

Adapting re-usable componentry

Staff who had previously collaborated with DIA’s Service Delivery and Operations on a financial calculator for SmartStart, took this reusable component and adapted it for the COVID response.

Within five days they had a calculator that employers, employees and the self-employed could easily use to work out their new financial entitlements.It took nearly four weeks to go through a bottle-necked Government COVID response review process before release, but quickly proved its worth: within five days it was receiving an average 2,122 page views per day.

Responding with technology for a ‘touchless’ future - Korerorero

As with the calculator, other work that began in anticipation of future need was the quick-build of the Korerorero framework. This runs a chatbot called Quinn, using what was learnt from Police with their hand-drawn animation in place of a live and costly 3D prototype.

Korerorero offers flexible integrations with existing services and enables a contactless user interface - no touchscreen or keyboard is required, so it has the potential to replace touch screen kiosks for check-ins and information searches. Because it’s backed by IBM Watson there are options to integrate with knowledge bases. It could be run as a text-only interface in chat providers such as Whatsapp or as a voice online in a call centre.

In plain English terms it could become the digital equivalent of a customer services representative - with a human face that is able to talk and provide answers to people’s queries. It was even being taught to pronounce some words in te reo Māori.

…and with non-tech ideas

A former colleague came to discuss pitching the Rippl contact tracing app he had privately developed, which led to a decidedly non-tech idea. Amid the race to come up with digital apps it became clear how little focus was going on non-digital contact tracing. This was significant as 20 percent of the population is digitally excluded, overlapping with those more likely to be impacted by the virus.

From this, the idea of a hard copy diary was developed and pitched to the COVID Response Team with support from the country’s leading cartoonist who would provide artwork to give added appeal to engage with, and potential to turn the diary into a memento of COVID times. COVID strengthens need to improve Community Services Card

The impact of COVID meant many more people will face financial hardship and require a Community Services Card. The card enables automatic discounts on health care costs.

For non-beneficiaries, applying for a card is a complex process that - like a Rates Rebate - has low uptake. The Government advises about 90,000 people each year by letter that they are eligible for the card, but only around 20,000 apply.

Fortunately, the Ministry of Health had already commissioned a piece of work that had DIA’s Life Events team working with Lab support on improving uptake.

As well as identifying large groups of people missing out on this benefit, the team contacted other relevant agencies to scope what would be involved in making this service easier to access, identifying opportunities to increase communication to eligible people. The project was delivered to the Ministry of Health before the Lab closure. The work has laid the foundation for further improvement of this entitlement just as demand ramps up.

Focusing on the vulnerable

Another team member stepped in to support Manaaki, the Vulnerable Communities Response Unit. A small team was stood up, which applied the Lab’s knowledge of the cross-agency engagement and assisted with coordinating a number of programme related tasks into a triage system to help prioritise the cross-agency/sector/ community response to meet the needs of vulnerable communities across New Zealand.