Public sector responses to COVID-19 - tech-enabled targeting from Rhode Island to New South Wales

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan July 22, 2020
Rhode Island in the US and New South Wales in Australia have both tapped into cloud tech to provide effective contact tracking and emergency response communications to tackle their respective COVID-19 realities.

rhode island
(Gina Raimondo, Governor of Rhode Island)

It's never been more important for government and business to partner to improve the state of the world and now it's the time as well for a true public private partnership.

That was the opening premise articulated by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to launch the firm's Global Government Summit, during which exemplars of such partnerships were showcased in the context of their respective responses to the COVID-19 crisis and the need for governments to step up to protect and service citizens. 

First up was Rhode Island, America’s smallest state and a Salesforce customer since 2014. The state has become a poster child for fast response to the pandemic crisis and the effective use of technology to support contact tracing. Close on one third of the total population has been tested to date and the rate of positive tests has been pushed down to 2% or under. Given that Rhode Island is geographically so close to New York, one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the US, it’s a great example of flattening the curve, albeit across a clearly much smaller population. 

Get real 

But the execution of strategy has been hugely impressive. Gina Raimondo, Governor of Rhode Island, says an important starting point was accepting that the huge magnitude of the crisis was real and working from that base: 

We had to get serious about it and not try to pretend that it was smaller than it is. I've always tried to embrace innovation, including technology, not just in this crisis, but anything. It became very clear early on that meeting the needs of the COVID crisis was all about speed. If the virus  moves quickly and outruns you, it's very hard to regain your footing. So we decided we always want to stay step ahead, to avoid outbreaks, to avoid a rising surge because again it's like a tidal wave. Once it comes, it's very hard to catch up. In any event, when you have to move fast and you have to be innovative, you have to scale. You have to embrace technology.

Effective contact tracing was absolutely vital, she adds, and tapping into CRM capabilities was key here: 

One of the things that we're all tracking is the rate of spread -  how many other people an infected person infects?  - and you want to keep that as low as possible. The only way to do that is when somebody tests positive to immediately - or as quickly as possible - reach out and touch everyone they've had contact with. It doesn't take a genius to realise if one person is spreading the disease to 400 other people, you're not going to get a lid on it. You cannot do that manually. You have to embrace technology to go and scale fast. And so a big part of our approach to make sure we can quickly get in contact with everyone who been in contact with someone with the virus was to lean on Salesforce [for the] kinds of tools to make our contact tracers that much more effective and be so fast.

Increased speed is actually a positive effect of the crisis, she notes, with the often slow decision-making and adoption curves having themselves flattened out: 

The only silver lining, if you can even say that, in this whole crisis is that we in government are embracing technology and innovation in a way that is faster and in a way that's going to help, in my case the people of Rhode Island over time. For example, a few weeks ago I announced the end of the 'snow day'. Kids should never again have to miss school because snow fell on the ground. They can do distance learning at home. At the Department of Motor Vehicles, we've struggled for a long time with long lines. We're now using technology to have the appointment and more online. For our unemployment insurance claims, we very quickly put all the data up in the cloud and and have been able to much more quickly process unemployment insurance.

So the bad news is it took a crisis for us to move so quickly; the good news is on the other side of it, if we enrich technology, Rhode Islanders will be better for it. Their experience with government I think should be more streamlined and effective and efficient.

Of course the crisis isn’t over, she cautions: 

We are certainly not out of the woods. No state will be until there is a widely available vaccine or therapy. Having said that we are though in better shape than many other places. At this point, we've tested the equivalent of nearly 30% of our population and our test positive rate is below 2%. So when you ask, how are we doing and is contact tracing helpful? The answer is, all things considered, we're doing pretty well. Our economy's essentially reopened, our beaches are reopened, you can go out for dinner.  

And there is the prospect of a better future, she adds:

I'm kind of person who's always looking to tomorrow, and where do we go next? If we are smart, we can build a fairer, more inclusive, more resilient economy. Right now, if we come together as a nation, public and private, and make the right investments in technology, in training, in our people, we can lay the groundwork for decades of productivity, which includes everyone.

Down under 

A prime example of how the COVID crisis can re-emerge can be seen in New South Wales (NSW), Australia where the state is back on high alert following a flurry of new cases in recent days. Localized outbreaks in what is Australia’s most heavily populated state are unfortunately likely to be a recurring theme for some time, but the territory has been robust in its response to the wider pandemic and is equipped to keep on top of such flare-ups. 

According to Victor Dominello, Minister for Customer Service, the NSW response has been made up of three main components: 

One goes to putting the customer first, and that's about informing or communicating with the customer. So we've amped up that channel in a big way, and that's through our service platform. The second thing we've done is have much more agility. So we're moving and changing things at speeds that we've never, ever done before. And then the third thing is we're doing all that with data-driven insights, ie not just moving, but moving with precision and using data.

He cites the example of the recent decision to close the border between NSW and neighboring Victoria as a case in point: 

The Premier [Gladys Berejiklian] says on Monday morning that we need to close the border, that Victoria is having a big spike there. So all of a sudden, we have to close the border. We had to set up a platform, literally in 36 hours, on digital channels to make sure we could control the flow of people…So that was done and was done at speed and with precision as well because now we can also track not only the individual, but at the aggregate level, how people are moving. 


Such actions are, as he notes, data-driven and that’s the approach that will be used to counter fresh outbreaks of the virus with targeted responses and communications:

When there is a spike, we have to hammer it down. We are using data. So, for example, there is a spike occurring, in my case, in our little town of Aubrey. So as a regulator and as the government, rather than go and hit every business really hard with very tough regulation, I'm getting all the inspectors I can to marshal down in Aubrey and say, 'Well, how's your business? Is it COVID safe?  Are you recording the names of people coming in?'. Otherwise, I would just print the load right across and not hit the high notes, which is the place we need to really target.

One powerful weapon in the states’s tech arsenal is Service New South Wales, an agency set up in 2013 within the wider Department of Customer Service to provide one-stop access to a range of government services via online, phone or in-person at its service centers, with the Salesforce platform underpinning the operation. Dominello explains: 

Over the years, we've set up a whole range of digital initiatives. People have signed up and, subject to privacy and security concerns, we've got information that enables us to go and reach out to them directly. We've got a population of about 8 million people here in New South Wales and we've got 5 million [digital] accounts. So again, it's a targeted response in relation to communication. Instead of just mapping the whole state, we can have a targeted email or text to the people in Aubrey to say, 'Please be on high alert. There is a risk coming across the border'. 

Because Service New South Wales was an established part of day-to-day government service delivery, it was already familiar to users, he adds: 

Trust is critical. Because we were delivering great services though Service New South Wales, we have a trust in that brand. When you have that trust, then when communication is coming through that channel, people pay more attention. Communication is key. And precision in relation to decisions and activation of those decisions. They are the key things. 

And like Governor Raimondo in Rhode Island, Dominello remains aware that the crisis is far from over: 

There but for the grace of God go us. Victoria, it could be us. We have to expect that there will be flare ups. it's how we respond to those that will be real measure. If we shut down the entire state... there there is cost everywhere you look, human cost everywhere. So instead of attacking the issue with a hacksaw, let's be laser-like. 

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