Five big thoughts on 2020: the year’s best interviews

By on 28/12/2020

It’s been a hell of a year – and one presenting huge challenges for civil servants around the world. Our interviews explore how senior leaders have faced those challenges: in this selection of highlights, interviewees present five very different perspectives on governments’ responses to the pandemic

Policymakers talk of ‘building back better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic, using the crisis to drive changes that make national economies both fairer and greener. But speaking in an August interview with Global Government Forum, Sir Suma Chakrabarti argued that few national leaders are making concrete steps in that direction.

The former UK permanent secretary, who led the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development for eight years, said he feared that errors made in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis were being repeated. “There is a risk, I think, that we repeat some of the mistakes of how we dealt with the financial crisis in neglecting the medium- to long-term agenda,” he said.  

Governments should be using stimulus packages to shift the dial and encourage the development and take up of green technologies and practices, said Chakrabarti. “[They could] say: ‘You can have this, but we want you to change your production processes to be much greener and so on’,” he said. “There is a first-mover advantage here. If people retool their economies quickly by taking up the green agenda, they may well find they’re going to get more investment in future, at faster pace, than those who don’t.” 

But national leaders are failing to grasp these opportunities, he said, “because the focus is on rescue and survival” and there’s a lack of global coordination: “The G7: pardon me, but does it even exist?”

Collaboration in Canada

If international collaboration has been weak, though, the pandemic has driven remarkable changes in the ways that civil servants work together – both in terms of remote working, and in relationships across the public sector. In September, Health Canada deputy minister Stephen Lucas told GGF that close partnerships between federal and provincial officials had been key to Canada’s relative success in fighting COVID-19.

Stephen Lucas

“There were a variety of decisions we needed to take collectively – or at least have collective support for,” he said, listing issues such as centralising PPE distribution, managing internal borders, and repatriating and quarantining Canadians overseas. “Adaptive learning and management, together with our jurisdictional partners, was such a critical element of our response, and I think has built linkages which will serve us well,” he commented. 

Meanwhile, inside the federal government “the further entrenchment of collaboration – a critical, cross-departmental competency that we’ve been stressing and trying to entrench in recent years – and an openness to taking more informed and smart risks were critical attributes of the response,” said Lucas. “They’ve shown the civil service at its best; and I’d like to think that’s something we can make irreversible, building it into how we work.” 

Data as a defence

Dr Carlos Santiso

The crisis is also accelerating governments’ attitudes towards the transformative power of data, as was clear from an July interview with Dr Carlos Santiso, director of governance practice at the Development Bank of Latin America. Santiso leads a small team dedicated to helping governments and others improve efficiency and transparency through digitisation, and said that he had seen interest blossom as a result of the pandemic. “The coronavirus crisis is putting the issue of data, data infrastructure and data governance into a new perspective,” he said. 

Santiso was particularly excited about the role that small tech start-ups could play in improving the ways in which civil services operate. “Govtech start-ups offer a fantastic opportunity to leverage new public-private partnerships for innovation in government, and in this pandemic their work is acquiring new relevance,” he said, noting that cultural changes needed to be acknowledged. “A lot of govtech start-ups have a really strong sense of social impact. But they’re trying to combine an agile, private sector approach based on data and new tech with cumbersome bureaucracies that are averse to risk.” 

Winning public trust

For former New Zealand civil service chief Iain Rennie, the most potent weapon in the struggle against COVID-19 is trust. New Zealand has famously avoided significant infection rates, moving early to impose tight movement restrictions: it went into lockdown before a single case had been recorded. Speaking in September, Rennie told GGF that much of his country’s success can be put down to people’s trust in their government.  

Iain Rennie

That trust is essential to support compliance with uncomfortable lockdown policies. “You’re asking people to adopt behavioural changes and stay largely in their houses for two or three months, which is a very unnatural and difficult thing for most of us,” he said. “People are only going to do that if they feel government is, A, competent and, B, seeking to act in their interests.” 

He added: “We’re certainly not through this pandemic by any means. But we’ve done well in New Zealand, and I think that’s partly a consequence of the general high level of trust and confidence that there is in government here. That trust – and I think it’s important for other countries to reflect on this – is really important in times of crisis.” 

And a different story

Certainly, it’s something the UK government would do well to reflect on. In a highly unusual interview published in September, former permanent secretary Philip Rycroft took aim at Boris Johnson’s government for excessive centralisation – which, he said, had been disastrous for the fight against COVID-19. 

Philip Rycroft, photographed in the Cabinet Office during his time at DEXEU. (Image courtesy of the FDA/Nicklas Hallen).

Rycroft – who in government oversaw the UK’s relationships with the devolved administrations, then ran the Brexit department – said that the UK government’s lack of respect for the devolved administrations undermined collaboration in the face of the pandemic. “Far from being a uniting crisis that has united the four governments in a common approach, it has become one in which the devolved governments have been able to portray themselves as acting outside the frame of the UK government,” he said. “It has become divisive.” 

The same attitude, Rycroft said, could be found in the government’s handling of COVID-19 in England, where local authorities – which have responsibility for public health – were side-lined while work on everything from testing to PPE procurement was centralised. “The whole COVID episode has been marked by centralisation; distrust of the devolved administrations; not involving the metropolitan mayors,” he said.  

“In all of the big systems – test and trace, PPE procurements and so on – the attempt has been made to manage that, as far as possible, from central entities rather than devolving those decisions”. Conversely, Rycroft added, the countries with the best performance on COVID-19 – he cited Germany, Australia and South Korea – have “more devolution of power and responsibility and obligations to the local level”. 

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