Monday September 21, 2020

Comment: Pandemic offers unique opportunity to reimagine public services

The central role of the public sector in responding to the Covid-19 crisis has restored trust – we should seize the chance to reform government

5th August, 2020
The Covid-19 crisis poses serious challenges for the government, but it also creates opportunities that, if taken, could create much needed reforms. Picture: Derick Hudson/Getty

There is a common narrative that the new government came into office at the worst possible time. All its decisions must be made against the backdrop of the pandemic; it has an ambitious and wide-ranging Programme for Government to deliver; and Brexit is to conclude by the end of the year.

There are clearly challenges ahead, but the Covid-19 crisis has brought huge opportunities too, in particular the possibility of fundamentally reimagining, revaluing and reforming our public services.

On December 31, 2019, our world changed forever. Covid-19 was reported by the Chinese government to the World Health Organisation. The implications were beyond a scale most of us could have imagined.

In most countries, governments responded at a pace never seen before. In many cases, however, they struggled to deal with the scale of the challenge which impacted almost every aspect of public service. Yet at the same time, citizens and businesses and all of society were reminded of how essential well-managed, properly-funded and modern public services are.

Huge questions remain unanswered: how long will the crisis last? Will there be second or further waves? Will effective vaccines or treatments be available? It is not known how long it will take our stretched public services to recover.

Yet it is not just a question of recovery and returning to normal. Governments are going to have to reimagine how they deliver many public services – to deal with the implications and consequences of Covid-19 while at the same time dealing with other global and domestic challenges including climate change, security, migration, housing and non-Covid-related healthcare.

The positives

Public work has been revalued: citizens and businesses see the value of effective public services with the capacity and capability to respond to major events.

Trust has been restored: political leaders, government and public servants responded at a pace never seen before – things that couldn’t be done got done. Some public servants and political leaders find themselves with the unexpected status of being seen as national heroes.

Remote working works: remote and other flexible work models, which had previously been treated with caution by many organisations, are seen to have worked and can have far reaching benefits.

The case for digital has been made: digital delivery of public services is effective and will be crucial to maintaining service during future crises.

A new sense of us: many reconnected with their communities, which showed resilience and spirit in the face of the crisis

What we have seen across the world

Our conversations with governments globally have indicated the following common themes in the context of Covid-19.

The public sector has been the focal point of the fight against the virus: the public sector has taken charge and its authority has been largely accepted. It mandated lockdowns and social distancing, built temporary hospitals and test facilities, worked with industry to deliver necessary testing and medical equipment, and delivered economic and financial relief.

Government has been seen to act quickly and decisively in a crisis: states have belied the stereotype of the slow-moving bureaucracy. Governments have waived regulations, enacted new legislation and convened a network of scientists, business and universities to help manage through the crises. We’ve seen numerous examples of governments using digital technologies to provide human-centred services to ease the path through the crisis.

As the crisis recedes, leaders must work to retain the socially collaborative spirit that has emerged: they’ll need to continue to focus on communicating across boundaries – between government and industry, between layers of government, and among various agencies. The self-interest of different players may have been put aside during the crisis, but during recovery, political considerations and different interests will re-emerge.

Trust and confidence will be essential to recovery: government leaders, and public health leaders in particular, earned widespread trust during the crisis. They will play a critical communication role in cutting through the noise of social media and in explaining differing rates of recovery and potential setbacks, fostering citizen confidence and trust that it is safe to re-engage with the larger community.

The journey ahead will not be easy: it is a multi-faceted crisis, targeting our health, our economy, our society and our governments. The economic downturn has decimated government revenues, while demand for services has soared. National consensus is required on the future funding model for public services.

A reimagined government

Covid-19 is the trigger that will fundamentally change government. Governments will re-imagine how they deliver public services to enable them to manage future crises and national priorities.

Government will become bigger and more strategic: it is going to have to play an outsized role in recovering the economy, transforming public services and providing protections against future crises.

Government will build much more active industrial policies: these will include financial support for business in the short term, and longer-term strategic supply chain resilience and security in areas such as medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, food, resources and infrastructure.

Government will seek to become “anticipatory”: building deeper capabilities in predicting and modelling future crises, including predictive analytics to support everything from health surveillance to better understanding policy impacts.

Government will drive integration and partnerships across all sectors of the public service: the flexibility, cooperation and synergy demonstrated during the Covid-19 crisis by business, industry and NGOs must be leveraged for the future.

The multiplicity and complexity of issues to be addressed by government over the coming years is huge. The crisis has affected security and justice, health and social services, transport and education. It has implications for policies on social equality, industrial policy, sustainability, climate change. A highly strategic, integrated approach is required to drive recovery and future resilience. This will mean:

• Government working with business, universities, research labs and others who can contribute capacity and expertise.

• Building government skills and capabilities required to deal both with a “business as usual” situation, but also with future crises whether they are driven by economic, health, climate, security or other factors.

• Assigning resources to existing operations, while also exploring ways to improve future crisis responses.

• Using data analytics and simulations to target likely problems before they erupt and shift the focus from clean-up to prevention.

• Public bodies should focus on delivering to citizens a range of new and expanded digital health, economic and social services, often doing do so in innovative ways. Digital services proved essential in the response to the Covid-19 crisis, and this needs to expand as we move into recovery phase.

• Establishing a series of coordinated programmes around specific themes which might include economic recovery and supports to SMEs, healthcare surveillance and delivery; public service transformation, and industrial policy and secure supply chain.

In the years before this crisis, many developed societies experienced a growing disconnect between government and citizens. Those controlling the state apparatus were often seen as an “elite”, out of touch with the public.

The central role of the public sector in responding to the crisis and in protecting and supporting citizens now gives an opportunity to recast that relationship between government and people. The key to this is a reimagining of public services, what they are and how they are delivered.

Shane Mohan is government and public services leader and Deloitte Ireland

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