Co-authored with Dani Schrakamp

Last week for #GovernmentNow, we discussed the necessity for secure, trusted remote work solutions. Today, we assess our own capacity for behaviour change and the opportunities and challenges ahead of us to ensure that our new post-crisis reality is more equitable, inclusive, and prosperous.

Whenever I speak in public about smart cities, communities and countries, I nearly always mention two distinct things: The importance of building frictionless experiences to remove hassle from people’s daily lives and the critical nature of fostering behavioural change.

In light of recent events around the world, we all have had to change varying kinds of our behaviour to (semi-sanely) adjust our lives accordingly. Even with a forced hand, we all continue to embrace this change because we are beginning to see the bigger picture unfold. But, now that the world has seemingly grown tired of its own recovery, how do we encourage people to continue thinking about modifying their behaviour toward a larger, lasting collective benefit?

Let’s be honest, people generally don’t like change. It can be uncomfortable and messy. But, in the past few months, there have been remarkable demonstrations of just how flexible, adaptable, imaginative, and resilient we all can be. What seems like a lifetime now, but truly in just a blink, our roads are less congested and therefore safer, the air we breathe is cleaner and therefore healthier, people are taking time to check in with loved ones more frequently and therefore finding meaningful ways to connect even when we’re all apart.

While it would be great if we could keep the best bits of these changes when things settle and we all return to normal, whatever that means. The dangerous possibility is that we will go back to exactly the way things have always been done. Change is arguably the most shunned part of our humanity, but given our current canvas, can we manage to adapt? One thing is clear: Without change, growth is not possible.

Changing tides in the UK

In late March, the UK Government enacted daunting legislative action embodied in the 2020 Coronavirus Act. This emergency legislation covers many aspects of public life, including: Instruction for how health and care professionals should operate, details for managing the food supply, directives for the use of collaboration technology in the criminal justice system, and information for the function of taxation and benefits systems in light of the crisis.

In parallel, the Department of Health and Social Care for England relaxed the rules on sharing patients’ confidential data with the exemption that required ‘healthcare bodies to provide patient information to each other to help fight COVID-19’. This notice is due to expire on 30 September unless formally extended.

As someone who dedicates their professional life catering to government organisations, I can’t help but think about the great opportunity that has emerged.  The government in the UK, like many others, has historically found success in coordinating policy, but struggled to implement and make anything operational. In response, industry leaders have spent many years encouraging more transparency, information-sharing, and cross-organisational collaboration throughout government. This would enable more seamless and innovative public services to be delivered. And, based on what we’ve experienced over the last few months, the current crisis has unveiled some of our governments’ greatest deficiencies.

Arbitrary rules that inhibit the sharing of information will limit or altogether squash cross-organisational collaboration before it can even get itself off the ground. In order to change behaviour and change ourselves, we need to first change the rules that shackle us to the norms that define the past.

Barriers to behaviour change and opportunities for the road ahead

Many public sector entities are now considering what to do after the world reopens. Some questions up for debate range from: ‘Do we enable hybrid work options for our workforce’ to ‘how do we comprehensively modernise our roads to safely plan for innovations in micro-mobility, autonomous vehicles, and all other vulnerable road users’? What we do know is that as a government and like most other nations around the world, the way that we protect, serve, heal, teach, and collaborate will likely never be the same.

I have been amazed how quickly the world has embraced new and alternative options in virtually every aspect of daily life. It would be a shame if we missed the opportunity to ride this wave change toward a better, brighter future that can benefit everyone.

Still, there are many topics that remain vastly untouched. Things like balancing cyber security governance while maintaining data privacy. Practical, ethical, and philosophical debates will continue to propagate as we discuss the boundaries of technology. Things changed incredibly quickly in the UK and around the world, and in many ways, humanity has demonstrated how brilliantly inventive people are when faced with a challenge and an opportunity to help their neighbour. But, taking action in response to a global emergency and making permanent, lasting change are most certainly not the same. Bridging this gap will require resilient and innovative leadership to push the boundaries of how we all respond to change.

Now is the time to consider how to make those improvements permanent. One thing government can do is to consider the provision of scalable, secure, reliable, open and flexible platforms upon which the foundations of future public services can be built. Wouldn’t it be amazing if what comes out of the COVID-19 crisis was better public services benefitting everyone?

People talk about different ways to encourage changes in behaviour: the carrot as your reward – although, I’d much prefer chocolate – and the stick as your punishment. History shows us that carrots nearly always work better than sticks, and they are certainly easier to digest.

The bridge to possible

At Cisco, we’re committed to investing in the people and knowledge that will catapult us toward new worlds of possibility. And now, more than ever, we are creating this new future together. 

What are some encouraging changes that you’ve seen? Or from your perspective, do we still have a long way to go to embrace meaningful change? Comment below. Share your thoughts. Join the conversation. And keep an eye out for our next #GovernmentNow post.


Stu Higgins

Head of Smart Cities and IoT, UKI

Public Sector