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The role of government in a post Covid world

Paul Maddox, Client Director – Wider Public Sector Key Account Team at O2, considers the lessons learned about connectivity by government in 2020 and 2021, and how the role of government might change as a result.


As Client Director, I lead the Wider Public Sector Key Account Team at O2. It’s a role I took on just as the country faced its first lockdown back in March 2020, and so as in many businesses, both the role itself, and the way I deliver it, have had to adapt rapidly throughout 2020 and 2021.

A great deal of our public sector work relates to central and local government, including the NHS, the Department of Transport, as well as projects in local councils throughout the country. In fact, implementing the connected solutions to help the NHS hit its vaccination milestones has been arguably the most challenging project of my team’s career to date.

In March, I was fascinated to read the Institute for Government’s report – Responding to shocks: 10 lessons for government, by Alex Thomas and Rhys Clyne. In a year that has tested the UK government as it responded to the combined impact of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, it sets out 10 key lessons learned.

A number of the lessons didn’t surprise me, and they won’t surprise you. But the ones that I found most interesting focused on the things government got right, not the ones they got wrong. For example, whilst there was debate about whether government reacted quickly enough to events as they unfolded, there was consensus that when they did execute, they executed well.

The handling of Universal Credit applications is a case in point. Between 12 March and 9 April 2020, there were 1.2 million applications, almost a million more than in the same period the previous year. And yet the Department of Work and Pensions was able to adapt and 93% of new claimants received their first payment on time.

Arguably the single biggest lesson learned concerned how government, just like business, has had to adapt to new ways of working. Where once working from home was considered a perk, or the exception, it became the only viable option almost overnight. It hasn’t been straightforward, but most would agree that the operation of government has held up pretty well.

There is a debate still to be had about the extent to which government employees return to the office, but I expect that the flexible workforce will remain in place. In March, we published our own research – Dynamic Working: A summary of insights into what drives productivity and growth. It revealed that 88% of employees worked mostly in the office before the pandemic, but that 61% now feel remote working should be the default. As with any business with a formerly office-based workforce, if the government tries too hard to bring the workforce back to the office, they may lose key talent as a result.

So, how might the role of government change in a post-Covid world? Here are my own thoughts about five key changes:

  1. Flexibility

From my own observations, a continued commitment to flexible working will need to be accommodated, although it won’t suit everyone. Just as in business, government will need to find ways to bring people together, as well as to replace those vital ‘water cooler’ informal discussions. For complete flexibility, access to fast connectivity needs to be universal. O2’s Dynamic Working research, for example, found that 43% of employees have unreliable connectivity at home.

  1. Opportunity

I am confident that opportunity exists post-Covid. For example, having seen for myself the NHS’s appetite to consume innovation as fast as it did last year, I believe there are considerable opportunities for digital providers in the healthcare sector.

  1. Collaboration

The Institute for Government’s report showed ‘a fundamental breakdown of the working relationship between central government in Westminster and local government across England’. If we are to achieve a truly effective digital workplace, the distinction between central and local government may need to be redefined, and measures implemented to enable effective and accountable collaboration between the two.

  1. Regeneration

If government and business maintain a flexible workforce, and our offices accommodate fewer people in future, then government must help to redefine the role of our towns and cities. Perhaps this will hasten, rather than delay, the rollout of smart cities?

  1. Infrastructure

You might think that with fewer people travelling into work each day, a number of transport projects are likely to be mothballed, or even cancelled altogether. Not a bit of it. I believe the economic recovery will rest on a series of major infrastructure projects, so I expect to see government planning more, rather than fewer projects. It’s a view shared by the Institution of Civil Engineers.


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