Front of the Massachusetts state capitol building in Boston.
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What We Can Learn From the Breakdowns in the Government's Vaccine Digital Rollout

6 minute read
Dom Nicastro avatar
Several government digital vaccine rollouts faced multiple challenges. Here we glean the lessons for digital CX practitioners.

When COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, federal and state governments took to the internet for distribution and appointment-scheduling. Can’t blame them. The internet’s pretty convenient, no?

Turns out, it wasn’t so easy. Millions of residents found themselves in digital mazes, digital hazes and sitting in digital waiting rooms with 88,000 or so people in front of them — only to get to have sites crash or find appointments unavailable.

“It was certainly both painful and frustrating for common people but even for digital natives,” said Abhi Yadav, founder and chief technology officer of Boston-based B2B customer data platform provider Zylotech, whose home state certainly had its fair share of digital issues. “A lot of this should come down to common sense, but when it comes to data, it’s mostly misunderstood.”

A Digital Cleanup that Spanned Weeks

Massachusetts, for the record, ended up after a few weeks fixing its digital vaccine rollout system that first hit the market Feb. 1, going from, “everyone fight each other in a digital sense for appointments on our website” to “give us your information and we’ll let you know when your appointment is.” The Bay State has administered as of its April 6 report more than 4 million vaccinations.

But that was not before Massachusetts residents and political organizations took full notice of the digital chaos brought on by the vaccine sign-up website:

And the digital cleanup was anything but easy. According to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts awarded five companies up to $3.3 million in contracts, mostly within a span of 11 days between late February and early March, to make the changes to the digital vaccination system. “There needs to be a record established of why the state tripped so badly in the beginning,” Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow, Mass., Democrat, told the Boston Globe. “We need to give people confidence that things will move more smoothly going forward.”

Massachusetts certainly wasn’t alone with problems in terms of digital vaccine rollouts in 2021. The US Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS) created by consulting firm Deloitte saw its share of reported problems by multiple states. Random canceled appointments, inability to distinguish the first shot from the second, trouble sending instructions to people on how to prepare and no confirmation emails. Deloitte has stood by its system, blogging about the values of the digital vaccine rollout system.

Related Article: How the US Federal Government Can Execute Great Customer Experience

A Digital CX Problem Worth Talking About

No one can claim they’re perfect when it comes to website performance. It is good to know why these breakdowns happen and how to be ready, something we covered in good detail after Gartner found many digital experience platforms (DXP) had trouble with usability, scalability and uptime in March of 2020 when the world went digital due to COVID-19 federal and state shutdowns. 

Recognizing these digital inefficiencies is something all customer experience professionals need to take to heart. But it’s also a callout to CX professionals that experience is far beyond a one-trick digital pony, according to Stephanie Thum, CCXP, founding principal of Practical CX.

“Customer experience is about so much more than what's happening on a website or on an app,” Thum said. “Even if a website or app works great, if a customer shows up for an appointment they booked online and is told, ‘Sorry, we're actually out of vaccines, go back and make another appointment,' then it doesn't matter how easy it was to make an appointment on a website.”

People behind the scenes across an entire organization still need to be collaborating and putting the experience together for the customer, she added, because the experience is about the customer's journey and their intended outcome, not your website. “It's a mistake to think all you need is a slick website,” she said.

In the context of COVID vaccines, organizations also have to recognize again there is still a digital divide in this country. “And unfortunately,” Thum said, “some of our most vulnerable citizens felt it. Not everyone has access to or knows how to use the internet. We can't call ourselves inclusive if we're leaving behind the most vulnerable segments of our customer base. This is a problem worth talking about in the digital CX spheres.”

Learning Opportunities

The Challenges for the Government 

So from where do these critical digital government breakdowns stem from?

Yadav sees the challenges in many functional areas where data is the bedrock of customer experiences:

  • Lack of trust in the data
  • Locking raw data out for any innovations
  • Silos within departments and source systems
  • Project mentality vs. ongoing data product mindset with outcomes in mind
  • Architecture is so old, while the requirements are if not real time/time sensitive
  • Lack of talent: data engineers are so hard to recruit
  • Everyone wants a change, but nobody wants to change (i.e., data sharing and innovation). People do nothing or are anxious to take bold steps.

Yadav was particularly passionate about chief experience officers understanding and acknowledging the efforts of data operations. Data veterans are always un-appreciated, he added. “The Googles and Facebooks are struggling with talent,” he said. “So let's not undermine the challenge of government where they don't even pay appropriately… It’s a leadership thing. The complexity of data is a thankless job. Data quality needs to be a strategic priority.”

According to Yadav, brands would benefit in providing better digital customer experiences if they recognize:

  • Cleaning or data quality is not a project but an ongoing process
  • Interoperability across systems, governed by open standards
  • Privacy governance and control is a committed practice
  • Security and encryption for data at rest and in motion is necessary
  • Domain or department data is owned and served by cross functional teams
  • Applying centralized data flow along with agile and data operations is a best practice
  • Business friendly workflow changes are implemented for faster decision making

Related Article: Why Cloud & Governance Matter When Scaling Digital Experience Platforms

A Call for More Open Source

Governments have gotten better through the years but still need work in embracing the web as a way to engage with citizens whether it’s in policy decisions or providing services, according to Dries Buytaert, founder and chief technology officer at digital experience platform provider Acquia and creator of the open source Drupal web content management system.

Acquia has powered government websites, including Mass.gov; it did not power the state’s vaccination rollout website. Buytaert naturally pushed for more governments to run on open-source technologies.

“I’m encouraged that governments are increasingly embracing open source,” Buytaert said. “And I think they should actually go a step further and lead by example by using open source but actually create laws that enforce the evaluation and use of open source software in governments, especially when it involves public money being used.”

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