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E-Government and Artificial Intelligence as Interventions to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Heyward
July 16, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic was a fast and furious global stress test without the simulation that impacted all organizational sectors and individual life sectors simultaneously. Countries were uniformly apprised of the pandemic status and grappled with increasing cases and deaths. The level of preparedness for the pandemic was underscored as countries looked at how to deliver public services in a pandemic. The institutions of public administration, public health, public education and public safety suspended the traditional delivery of public services to reduce the number of cases and deaths. The shocking and sobering infectious disease with rapidly emerging variants forced a paradigm shift to create new ways of thinking, new ways of working and new ways of living. Innovation was paramount to developing concepts and approaches to solve complex, tame and wicked problems. The pandemic demonstrated the need for collaborations and partnerships as problems, especially wicked problems, are not solved in silos. The gravity of COVID-19 required international collaborations and partnerships. April Heyward has been examining the employment of e-government and artificial intelligence as interventions to the COVID-19 pandemic as part of her research.

E-government is the technological arm of public administration and public policy to extend government in action. The public value of e-government was underscored globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID-19 cases increased, governments around the globe increased dissemination and availability of COVID-19 information on websites, social media channels, online platforms, etc. Information sharing was mission critical when counter COVID-19 information circulated that could negatively impact public trust, credibility and prevention and risk management measures. Countries employed online mental health platforms and counseling services to combat isolation and COVID-19 fatigue. Apps were developed for patients to check their health status, which was an intervention for stressed and taxed health systems testing for COVID-19 and treating patients with varying levels of available PPE (Personal Protection Equipment).

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) employed the Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS) to manage COVID-19 vaccines nationwide. VAMS provides the location of vaccine sites and the number of doses available on specific days and times. Individuals can schedule COVID-19 vaccine appointments online and select where they want to receive the vaccine. Upon completion of COVID-19 vaccination, VAMS sends an email to enroll in v-safe, which is an initiative of the CDC to monitor the effects of the vaccine. V-safe facilitates daily health check-ins and weekly health check-ins via text messaging.

Artificial Intelligence and its sub-disciplines (e.g., Machine Learning, Deep Learning and Neural Networks) are fascinating. Herbert Simon was one of the pioneer scholars to contribute to Artificial Intelligence and continues to be revered in Public Administration, Psychology, Economics and Computer Science. Simon put forward in his book, The Sciences of the Artificial, the characterization of AI as systems developed by humans to achieve goals and to function. His characterization is the essence of how AI was employed as an intervention to combat COVID-19 in concert with e-government to foster government in action. There was discourse on AI and its continuing advancements with the move to be in alignment with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) prescribed by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim of GDPR is to further guard individual data in the countries of the European Union and to further strengthen individual data guidelines. The effect and impact of GDPR extends beyond the European Union to all data handlers of EU individual data globally (e.g., public sector, private sector and third-party data handlers). As interventions were being developed, newer discourse and considerations in relation to GDPR emerged to chart a path forward to combat COVID-19.

The United Nations (2020) surveyed its member states to assess their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The types of AI interventions put forward by member states, at times through partnerships with the private sector, include, but are not limited to, virtual doctors, sterilization robots, medical assistant robots, patrol robots and contact tracing. Virtual doctors diagnosed patients to reduce the strain on health systems. Sterilization robots sterilized healthcare facilities. Medical assistant robots delivered medications, meals, etc. to patients to decrease exposure between healthcare staff and patients and to conserve the use of PPE. Patrol robots employed facial recognition and thermal cameras to identify possible individuals with COVID-19 in public spaces. Contact tracing chatbots and apps identified the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in geographical locations. This required willing participation and enabled location services from citizens and assurance of privacy and data protection by the government. The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented stress test that suspended traditional public service delivery. E-government and AI facilitated public service delivery and were interventions to combat a global pandemic. It would be intriguing to know what Herbert Simon would think about the advancement of AI as an intervention and the administrative behavior of governments in a global pandemic.

Author: April Heyward is a Public Sector Practitioner in South Carolina and is pursuing her Doctorate in Public Administration at Valdosta State University. She can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/heyward_april. For more information on April, visit www.aprilheyward.com. All opinions and views are her own and do not reflect the views and opinions of her affiliations.

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