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Public management of the pandemic: ten lessons

Francisco Longo

Among the many intellectuals, academics and experts across a wide range of scientific disciplines who have analysed the effects of the pandemic from different perspectives, there is a significant degree of consensus about one point: rather than being a force of disruptive change in itself, Covid-19 is rapidly accelerating pre-existing trends which, driven by the technological revolution and globalisation, had already begun to transform the world.

It cannot be denied that the pandemic has had a powerful effect on governments and their organisations. However, in an arena like the public sector, which is less sensitive than other sectors to fundamental change, the question must be asked whether this enormous shock wave will mark a turning point – in other words, whether the forces for change will prevail over the inertia of continuity characteristic of this sector – or whether the opposite will occur.

At all events, although of course it is a little early to point to conclusive evidence, in the light of the experience gained in handling the pandemic thus far and the studies that have begun to analyse this experience, it is possible to put forward some conclusions and draw certain lessons that managers in the public sector would do well to add to the perspective from which they view the immediate future. The aim of this article is to outline some of these lessons.

1. The state counts and its visibility is growing

From the outset, Covid-19 highlighted the central role of public systems. Although efforts to confront the pandemic required intervention from a wide array of social actors, governments were swift to adopt a key role, seeing themselves obliged to become involved in: a) a flurry of regulatory activity to adapt regulations to the new situation and influence collective behaviour; b) taking on a role of leadership and response coordination that very few questioned; c) the provision of large sums of money to subsidise the sectors and groups most affected by the crisis and to finance research into vaccines and treatments; and d) the launch of a package of essential public services to protect the population and ensure the continued operation of key activities in a critical context.

This central role will probably be maintained in the future, in order to meet the demands of the many complex problems in uncertain environments that characterise this new era. And this will give public systems a higher profile, as is already occurring during the pandemic. This greater visibility has a twofold effect.

Gestión pandemia sanidad
The pandemic has highlighted the capability and commitment of many public servants, although it has also exposed failings and deficiencies in services that were not so obvious when the public sphere was less visible (Photo: Alejandro Castellón)

On the one hand, it increases society's demand for transparency. Over the last year, we have seen governments subjected to close social scrutiny, with demands to access information, check data and learn of the criteria for decisions, as well as the identity of those who establish these criteria. In Spain, this has led to an escalation in the historic tensions between the Council for Transparency and an Administration in which the culture of a lack of transparency still lingers. It is foreseeable that this social pressure for transparency will remain high in the future.

The needs for transparency and truthful information are going to form part of a growing social demand

On the other hand, the pandemic has highlighted the capability and commitment of many public servants, especially in healthcare and other essential sectors, although it has also exposed failings and deficiencies in services that were not so obvious when the public sphere was less visible. Insufficient digitisation, bureaucratic inflexibility and slowness in many procedures, the lack of coordination between administrations and the non-existence of clear responsibilities are all shortcomings that have been observed in Spain over the last few months, and these have given rise to feelings of dissatisfaction which will not disappear overnight.

2. The challenges of public management are global

As the OECD underlines in a report published last November, despite the different circumstances of each country, over the course of time there have been a growing number of similarities in the responses made by governments and organisations to Covid-19. The existence of a common threat, the enormous uncertainty and the availability of comparable data in real time have increased benchmarking, comparison, emulation and, to a considerable extent, the convergence of policies on an unprecedented scale.

The globalisation of information has permeated the whole of society. Never before had citizens so actively consumed such up-to-date comparative information about the actions of governments all around the world and used it to form an opinion about the measures adopted in their own country.

National public systems will have to continue using comparative analysis and developing it as a tool that ensures the quality and legitimacy of their decisions

This trend is here to stay. It will impose two requirements on governments: firstly, they will need to fine-tune the mechanics of producing public responses, and secondly, they will have to respond to public opinion that is used to looking abroad and making comparisons. National public systems, which will continue to face a wide range of problems shared by other countries, will have to continue using comparative analysis and developing it as a tool that ensures the quality and legitimacy of their decisions.

3. Conventional crisis management is not sufficient for managing in the face of turbulence

From the last two decades of the twentieth century onwards, traditional public bureaucracy has received criticism due to its limitations in confronting complex problems (referred to as 'wicked problems' in the academic literature), characterised by ambiguous problem definitions, complex causalities, conflicting responses and the lack of standard solutions. As Ansell, Sorensen and Torfing observe in a recent article, Covid-19 raises the stakes by turning some of these problems, such as the pandemic, into turbulent problems, that is to say, surprising, inconsistent, unpredictable and uncertain events.

The knowledge available about crisis management may be of assistance in tackling this kind of problem, but it is not sufficient. Conceived to adapt organisations to the demands of a critical period on a temporary basis, and focused on questions about coordination and communication, it serves, as Víctor Lapuente has observed, to manage risk, but not uncertainty. It is not designed to steadily imbue public governance with some of the attributes that turbulence demands: fundamentally, high doses of flexibility, a capacity for experimentation, and the ability to create networks and collaborations with other administrations, civil society and the private sector.

Pandemia ciudadanos
Never before had citizens so actively consumed such up-to-date comparative information about the actions of governments all around the world (Photo: Michele Ursi)

The authors cited use the term "robustness" to define this model of public governance that is suitable for managing in turbulent environments. In their view, control-fixated public management must give way to another trust-based system of management. At all events, we refer here to approaches that are far removed from the hierarchical and self-sufficient model that continues to prevail in most of our administrations, and to the culture of formal control and “zero errors” that accompanies it.

4. Mobilising decentralised and coordinated responses is difficult, but essential

Tensions between different levels of government have been a constant in the management of the pandemic worldwide, even in the more established federal systems, such as the US or Germany. In Spain, coordination between central government and regional governments (the ill-named “cogovernance”) has been responsible for some successes and many failures, and cries out for investment in improving the institutional design of our multi-level model of governance.

However little decentralised a state may be (and this is not, of course, the case of Spain), public management of this type of challenge demands that regional agencies close to citizens should play a role in providing a response, and if we add the private sector and civil society to this equation, as indeed we must, the challenge of coordination becomes even more complicated.

In Spain, coordination between central government and regional governments has been responsible for some successes and many failures

The creation of communities of practice, the customary exchange of information and collaboration at technical and organisational management levels, and the consolidation of professional networks based on trust, distanced from political controversy, are the best instruments for achieving this coordination of responses. In the post-Covid-19 scenario in Spain, a collective priority, namely the management of projects financed with NGEU recovery funds, will put us to the test once again in this respect.  

5. Innovation and digitisation are not options, but demands that compel a change in the status quo

When there are no standardised and formalised responses, innovation is an obligation. And, as I argued in an article that pre-dated the virus, the Administration, whose original vocation was not to innovate, but rather the contrary, needs to evolve its governance models, incorporating exploration and experimentation into the ways in which decisions and actions are taken.

Covid-19 has highlighted this need, and also the possibilities of an innovative public sector, with documented initiatives in fields such as open data platforms, tracking of infections, telemedicine, health training for non-healthcare staff, the use of nudges for changing citizen behaviour, support for self-employed workers and small businesses in ecommerce, the refurbishment of spaces for medical purposes, crowdsourcing and other forms of encouraging citizen collaboration, to name but a few. The pandemic has also brought to light the limitations of the public sector, especially in the form of collapse due to excessive strain, services strangled by bureaucratic rigidity and the difficulty of functioning remotely. In Spain, the bottlenecks in processing loans, aid and benefits such as the ERTE furlough scheme and the Minimum Vital Income show this other side of the coin.

Covid España
Covid-19 has highlighted the possibilities of an innovative public sector, with documented initiatives (Photo: La Coruña/Imaxe Press)

Digitisation has accompanied all the innovative efforts made, while the different degrees of development and starting points between countries and institutions must not be disregarded. The pandemic can give a powerful impetus to the digital administration, but with two conditions. The first is understanding that the key to progress is not simply investment in technology, but reform of the existing structures, processes and cultures. The failure of the “Covid radar” application in Spain speaks volumes in this respect. The second condition, directly related with the first, is accepting that the adjustment variable of innovations must under no circumstances be an excessive burden placed on citizens. It has to be said there is a clear contrast between how easy it is for us to carry out sensitive banking procedures on a mobile telephone, for example, and how tedious it can be to perform the digital processes involved in monitoring or undertaking routine formalities with public authorities.

The pandemic can give a powerful impetus to the digital administration, but with conditions

This situation is exacerbated by the phenomenon of the digital divide, widely reported in comparative studies. This divide has been particularly visible during the pandemic in the schooling of children from lower-income families with very limited or no access to the internet. In fact, as the OECD points out, the digital administration could increase inequality if public policies are not applied to correct this undesirable social bias.

6. Teleworking must be consolidated, guaranteeing proximity, agility and creativity

Remote working has become a common practice imposed by Covid-19 all over the world. A European Commission study estimates that 40% of those currently working in the EU began to telework full-time as a result of the pandemic. In the public sector, teleworking quickly became the norm throughout Europe.

There is a general consensus that this movement towards telework is not circumstantial. Due to the characteristics of the tasks involved, remote working will become common practice for many public sector employees, although, as research from Aalto University shows, there are also social and organisational factors in this sector that make it difficult. In institutionalising telework in public administration, it is imperative to adapt employment regulations and invest in resources and training. A significant change in human relations management at work is also part and parcel of this process.

Burocracia
Remote working could tend to reinforce those bureaucratic environments and modi operandi that most obstruct innovation (Photo: Media+Media)

The pandemic forced the introduction of telework, making a virtue out of necessity, with no time or opportunity to adapt to it, and this has led to the deterioration of some public services, which were ill-prepared for change. In Spain, this deterioration was evident in education, as well as in many administrative services (unemployment benefits, subsidies, pensions, immigration permits and procedures…) which came to a standstill, and the delays and obstacles there contributed to the appearance of a market in which intermediaries operate in the shadows.

Teleworking must also confront a paradox, for in general it adapts better to tasks that can be programmed and standardised rather than experimental and creative tasks. One of the great experts on this subject, Nicholas Bloom, of Stanford University, referred to this in an interview: “teleworking is not so good for innovation, because it is too good for productivity”. This paradox is important for public management, because remote working could tend to reinforce those bureaucratic environments and modi operandi that most obstruct innovation. Professor Bloom himself recommends defining the most suitable mixture of on-site and remote working.

7. Communication matters and has a long future ahead of it

Never before had communication management been such an important component of public management as it has been during the pandemic. This was a vital development in order to satisfy worried citizens' needs for information. Furthermore, appropriate behaviours had to be induced in these citizens to reduce the impact of the virus. This is also the terrain in which battles have been waged against the “infodemic” (the abundance of disinformation, fake news and malicious intoxication) that has accompanied Covid-19. And we might add that, above all, it has been through communication that governments have managed – with varying degrees of success – their need for legitimacy in difficult times.

Communication is destined to become a key instrument for managing a central part of the public agenda

All this pressure will be maintained in the future. As mentioned earlier, the needs for transparency and truthful information are going to form part of a growing social demand. Moreover, communication is destined to become a key instrument for managing a central part of the public agenda, the part formed by the more complex problems that develop in volatile and uncertain environments.

As the pandemic has shown, when tackling these types of problems, public management cannot focus solely, or principally, on doing things, but on getting citizens to do things. Public value appears in these cases when society is successfully encouraged to appropriate certain frameworks of reference and these are transferred to the behaviour of individuals. Use of the findings of behavioural economics, along the lines of the contributions of the UK's  Behavioural Insights Team during Covid-19, will refine and develop communication mechanisms for this purpose.

8. Regulating is not what it was

As we observed, Covid-19 has demanded that governments make intensive use of regulatory activity. Often, they have had to do so in urgent situations that have taken the crisis in traditional regulatory methods to the limit. If the predictive capacity of regulations was already questionable in complex and uncertain contexts, the pandemic has thrown down a very serious challenge. Furthermore, the need to link regulation and experimentation, best exemplified by regulatory sandboxes, has become clear in an unprecedented manner in the exploratory context in which public management has developed worldwide.

Moreover, as an OECD study of September 2020 indicates, the characteristics of the pandemic have clashed with some rules established to guarantee the quality of regulations, dynamiting ex ante regulatory assessment impact (RIA) procedures. A part of the flexibilities introduced will tend to remain, and this will make it necessary to develop ex post forms of assessment that allow essential scrutiny of the efficacy and efficiency of measures.

If the predictive capacity of regulations was already questionable in complex and uncertain contexts, the pandemic has thrown down a very serious challenge

However, there are other modes of intervention which – justified purely by the health emergency and kept in place while it continues – must be reviewed as soon as possible, in order to fully re-establish the rule of law. Comparative assessment also expresses concern about the impact of the Covid-19 regulations on people's privacy, and about the range of individual rights affected by emergency legislation which, at times, has revealed serious deficiencies. In the same way, where parliamentary control has been weakened, there is no doubt that it must be wholly restored as soon as possible. In Spain, the vicissitudes of the state of emergency and the massive use of legislation by decree sound serious warning bells in this respect.

9. Creating public value demands data management, evaluation, learning and accountability

According to the OECD, data governance, public-private data sharing and the circulation of data on open government platforms have gained a high profile during the pandemic in many countries. Data is a strategic asset of public management. The availability, effective management, good governance and social accessibility of data will be differentiating factors in good public management in the future. In Spain, there has been some learning and development in this respect, but deficiencies in all these areas have often been visible. To tackle these deficiencies, as I argued in another article not long ago, it is essential to improve the capacity to attract, manage and retain talent in the public sector.

The availability, effective management, good governance and social accessibility of data will be differentiating factors in good public management in the future

Something similar applies to evaluation. In the context of the emergency, there has been talk of a trade-off between the urgent need for intervention and the time required for rigorous evaluation. I believe this appears to be more of a dilemma than it really is. Public management must be capable of acting at two speeds: resolving what is urgent, but at the same time devoting intelligence and resources to an independent and professional evaluation of the results and the impact of decisions. And for this purpose it is advisable to use analytical capacities that exist outside governments as well. This is what some twenty eminent Spanish epidemiologists urged in an article published in The Lancet in August 2020, a cry supported by 50 scientific societies. Behind the Government's excuses for not setting the proposed evaluation in motion, over and above the untimeliness for which they have been criticised, there lurks a narrow, endogamous and fearful view of evaluation.

Without evaluation there is no learning or accountability. And if the experience of Covid-19 tells us one thing, it is that the effectiveness of public policies makes it obligatory to consider evidence and learn from it, and in turn their legitimacy makes it necessary to assume responsibilities towards citizens in an exemplary and transparent manner. In my opinion, these are important lessons for public management that the pandemic has given us.

10. Uncertainty demands new leadership profiles

Covid-19 has put leadership in the public sector to the test. As Ansell, Sorensen and Torfing observe in the article cited earlier, the pandemic has made things difficult for leaders used to rational decision-making based on deep analyses and protracted studies. This has been a time for leaders who trust their instincts, who are capable of consulting real-time data, seeking expert advice, accepting cognitive dissonance, building alliances, learning from experience, adapting to new circumstances… In order to deal with turbulence, there will be continued demand in public systems for these types of leaders.

In this respect, two types of attributes – both recognisable in leaders who have been able to manage the pandemic successfully – stand out with a view to the future. Firstly, the capacity to build cooperative environments, with the support of employees and stakeholders, and to lead horizontal collaborations between professional groups, organisations and sectors, with an emphasis, due to their importance and difficulty, on public-private collaborations. Secondly, communication skills which, as we saw, have been and will continue to be of prime importance for public sector managers in the future.

In conclusion, as a result of all these lessons, we find ourselves with challenges to confront and reforms to undertake, often of considerable scope. In the case of Spain, the experiences of recent months underline the relevance of the declaration made by a group of academics and experts in June, in which we called for these reforms to be undertaken as a vital step towards ensuring that our public sector has the capacity to lead the recovery.

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