By Tom Paquin
If you—like me—have someone who is currently eligible for vaccination from COVID-19 somewhere in the United States, it’s likely that you—again, like me—have refreshed a state government website incessantly, scrambled over the sudden appearance of an open spot, frantically plugged in you or your loved one’s medical information, and been greeted by a frozen webpage, or an error message, or a notification that there are no vaccines available at your given location.
I live in the state of Massachusetts, whose initial vaccine rollout, for various reasons, was poor. And in spite of some improvements, on the 18th of February we moved into Phase 2 of rollout, offering vaccines to people 65 and older, thus flooding over a million new people onto the sites and into the vaccine queue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to frustration, anger, and confusion as the scheduling portal buckled under the traffic and those without constant access to a computer or who can sit on hold for over an hour are left in a lurch.
This has left many, myself included, frustrated, demoralized, and unsure of what to do next. So we’re going to channel that frustration into what we love to do around here—applying a service-oriented mindset to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout!
While we are quick to talk about service management in the private sector, it’s important to remember that nonprofits and public works need service support too. Often their confluence with the private sector is a blurred line, to begin with (especially in the case of these rollouts, most of which are happening with the help of private enterprises) but, though customer retention is less of a concern for governments and municipalities, mitigating waste and maximizing customer happiness is paramount to successful operations.
So let’s look at a few tips for how to take vaccine rollout and make it right for people:
Stress Testing and Scenario Modeling
Naturally, one of the biggest problems with the vaccine rollout has been the volume of people accessing the web crashing the site. Those who eschewed the website and called have met operators who are also attempting to access a crashing website. How can these issues be mitigated in the future?
My state, like every other land mass on the planet, has a given number of human people in it. That number of human people accessing a scheduling system, under any circumstances, can be simulated. It is something hackers do frequently. A key to any rollout of a customer-facing system is stress testing the load of users at a given time. Managing that load means managing not just the traffic, but how that traffic is queued, how it is routed, and how it is prioritized.
Getting these right in any service scenario will benefit from a favorite topic of mine: simulating service interactions. “What if?” scenario modelers are easier and easier to enable (most commonly in the planning and scheduling world), and can show outcomes at various volumes crosschecked across other conditions. The confluence of these give a picture of overall system health and allow businesses to build immediate contingencies and systems for roadblocks.
Meeting the Needs of Diverse Stakeholders
I am privileged to work in a job that offers me the ability to sit in front of a screen for eight to ten hours a day. Because of this, I could conceivably spend all day refreshing the “Vaxfinder” portal indefinitely and snatch up the latest appointment in between meetings and production work.
People who ironically work in many of the industries that are exposed far more frequently to the public—Postal workers, bus drivers, food service workers, and so on—Lack that privilege. You could argue that this is a socioeconomic failure and represents greater fissures in the foundation of civilized society that have been unearthed by this crisis, and I’m not qualified to say whether or not that is true. I’d argue, though, that a small way to begin to repair such fissures would be through ensuring racial and economic equity with respect to the rollout.
It would be wrong of me to say that technology will save us from our problems, and good people are working to combat this legislatively. But by developing triggers, allocating appropriately into specific demographics, and, plainly, ensuring that the rate of vaccine utilization matches the demographic makeup of the state, region, and so on, is important.
This succeeds though systems of tracking, and is a reminder of the importance, in any service setting, that tracking is never, ever a binary. Lifecycle tracking begins with the supply chain, though the delivery of service (or, in this case, jabs), and finally, the follow-up and demographic management. If that’s not measured in a single, unified way, then you can’t match demographic shortfalls to an increase in the supply chain.
Obviously in the walled garden of a private enterprise, this is easier to do than for a government or nonprofit, but thoughtful development on the front-end can, at the very least, mitigate and correct some of these issues.
Unfortunately, because of that, this article functions more as an allegory for service delivery than a solution that governments can take to heart. But when it’s time to schedule your own jab, consider how your own business is managing supply chain, service, and volume, and if there’s a way to do it better, more equitably, and with less friction for all of your customers.