How governments are building resilience to address today’s crises and tomorrow’s catastrophes

By on 12/05/2024 | Updated on 29/05/2024

For those at the top of government, crises are growing in both frequency and complexity. And while civil service leaders tackle each fresh disaster, they must keep on working to head off the next emerging threat. At the Global Government Summit, top officials from around the world explored the timely topic of risk management

“There are different crises happening at the same time,” said Taimar Peterkop, Estonia’s secretary of state. He cited climate change, rapid migration and the Ukraine war – and these crises are increasingly interlinked, he explained. Take the relationship between the Ukraine war and migration: Estonia took in 80,000 Ukrainian refugees last year, said Peterkop, noting that Russia is also shipping in migrants from further afield to bring pressure to bear on Western Europe.

“The West is waging a hybrid war with Russia,” he said. “Russia has weaponised migrants: there are thousands waiting in Russian housing to be sent to Finland, which has closed its border. So sometimes it’s difficult to tell what kind of a crisis it is.”

Peterkop was speaking in the session on crisis management at the 2024 Global Government Summit, which brought top civil service leaders from 16 countries to Singapore for frank, free-flowing discussions on the challenges they face in common. The challenge for public sector leaders in an era of instability and overlapping, interconnected challenges – as the agenda put it – is to “keep one eye on the horizon, even whilst addressing the latest crisis”, continuing “the crucial work required to address longer-term threats that will otherwise provide tomorrow’s catastrophes”.

The only solution here, Peterkop argued, is to build “a resilient society and civil service”. And over the following 90 minutes, the assembled civil service leaders discussed how to do so – identifying both a set of lessons from recent crises, and some key ways in which governments are building their nations’ capabilities and preparedness for the challenges to come.

Build the connections in easier times

Taimar Peterkop, Estonia’s secretary of state, spoke about the importance of building “a resilient society and civil service”.

Governments that enjoy the trust of their populations perform better in a crisis, pointed out Lord Gus O’Donnell, former cabinet secretary of the UK: “Research shows that countries that have high levels of trust in government had lower excess deaths” during the pandemic, he said. As Peterkop noted, “you need to build those relationships with civil society in peacetime; when the crisis emerges, it’s too late.”

Civil servants must work hard to build networks reaching out into civil society, Peterkop argued, strengthening governments’ connections with academia, the voluntary sector, businesses and the wider public sector – and, through them, to people in all walks of life. These relationships can be particularly helpful in the “fight against disinformation”, he added, “building cohesiveness” to combat the political polarisation afflicting Europe and North America.

Singapore has taken a similar approach, said Cindy Khoo, a deputy secretary in the city-state’s Strategy Group in the Prime Minister’s Office. “Those relationships need to be built up in peacetime, but also exercised,” she said. “The problems that we commonly work on during peacetime may not be the same as those we work on during a crisis, but the process of working through difficult problems builds that trust, builds that muscle, builds that instinct to be able to entrust certain duties to others.”

Become as interconnected as the risks you face

Meanwhile, governments have been building capabilities and reorganising themselves to prepare for future crises. Estonia, for example, has merged its civic and its security emergency response systems, creating what Peterkop called “one unit to document all the risks that Estonian society is facing”: in a world where migrants are weaponised and armed conflict can sever energy supply chains, governments must be as interconnected as the challenges they face.

Every government body should maintain an up-to-date risk register, said one civil service leader: in their country, “the role of audit committees was strengthened to effectively consider the responsiveness of risk management strategies of ministries, departments and agencies”.

Singapore has been thinking along similar lines, said Khoo: “We must set aside time for scenario planning, to look for where the next crisis could be, to test our blind spots, and to test the systems that we have set up,” she said. In the field of public health, for example, government – well aware that “COVID is not like SARS, and the next disease may not be like either of them” – is working to build “agility, capacity and flexibility”, reforming organisations, laws and partnerships across the “public health ecosystem”.

Never waste a crisis

“We must set aside time for scenario planning, to look for where the next crisis could be”, said Singapore’s Cindy Khoo

Singaporean leaders also linked their pandemic response to the existing civil service reform agenda, Khoo explained. “The idea has always been that we need to be future-ready. But transformation is difficult; it’s hard to build momentum,” she said. During the pandemic, civil service leaders were able to show how capabilities built under the reform programme – such as remote working and digital services – had much improved their ability to cope with this new challenge, providing additional “motivation for people who’d worked very hard to transform their systems”.

Indeed, said Khoo, “the crisis gave us the opportunity to accelerate some of the long-term transformation that we wanted to do”. For example, “we’ve been working for many years to get people accustomed to the idea of frequent skills upgrading, to be better prepared for the economic disruption of the future. COVID itself was a disruption, changing the way that people worked”: the experience both demonstrated the importance of constantly developing new skills, and accelerated progress in key fields such as data management and service integration. 

The shift to flexible working has also endured: many Singaporean officials now routinely work outside the office for two days a week, said Khoo, “both reaping the productivity benefits of flexible working arrangements, and coming into the office for collaboration and team-building”. Teams are perfecting the art of hybrid meetings, in which the key players are physically present while others connect remotely.

Be innovative, be open

Estonia has also sought to harness recent crises to foster more “agile and flexible governance”, said Peterkop, working to create an “innovation culture” among senior leaders. Every departmental chief has undertaken a “tailor-made course on how to make digital change happen”, he said, and they’re now being trained in how to create more innovative organisations. This in practice requires politicians to adjust their approach to risk, he acknowledged, but many are on board – “at least in their rhetoric, and hopefully in their deeds as well”.

Combining innovation with Estonia’s digital capabilities and leaders’ focus on building public trust and engagement, the country has created a “co-creation platform, enabling citizens to engage government over political decision-making”, Peterkop explained. This fits neatly with Estonia’s approach to digital government, which emphasises “being as open as possible”, he said. “When we have technology failures, we talk about them. When we’ve had cyber attacks, we don’t hide them. Being honest is fundamental to having people trust the system.” Under Estonia’s “reverse Big Brother” approach to data management, he explained, citizens can track every use of their personal data by government – “so a citizen can spy on the government, not the government on the citizens”.

Read more: ‘Team captains’: National digital leaders on the role of governments in cybersecurity

Get everyone in the room

So recent crises have spurred on civil service reform across a swathe of activities. But perhaps the biggest innovations – and the greatest challenges – coming out of the pandemic were in the field of policymaking, as governments struggled to respond to a novel, multi-faceted, fast-moving emergency with very limited information.

Many countries created broad-based advisory panels, bringing in medical, public health, economics and social experts to help guide ministerial decision-making. And some of these innovations have endured: Estonia has established permanent bodies to channel the views of businesses, civil society and academics, explained Peterkop.

However, O’Donnell questioned whether – even with such panels in place – governments had proved able to make consistent decisions when balancing “lives versus livelihoods”. He hadn’t seen an effective framework “for managing mixed crises, where you’ve got the medical guys telling you about deaths, the economists telling you about livelihood changes, the education specialist talking about schools”, he added. “You have to incorporate all of these to make consistent decision-making; there’s ways of doing it, but I don’t think any country that I’ve come across has done.”

Learn from your mistakes

“Don’t lose the productive capacity, because the sun will shine again”, said Leo Yip, head of the Singapore Civil Service

This is an area for further research, said O’Donnell: every country has been reviewing its own performance during the pandemic, but there’s a lack of international studies comparing different approaches. What’s more, too many of these national COVID inquiries “try to do three things: blame allocation, a voice for victims, and lessons learned”, he argued. “Really what’s happening is that they do the first two in some detail, but they’re not really doing the third at all. I worry that we won’t be able to draw the right lessons.”

Leo Yip, head of the Singapore Civil Service, agreed that better research is required to assess nations’ strategies and performance during the pandemic, drawing out learning points. As well as reviewing governments’ work during the pandemic, he said, this should consider post-pandemic recovery.

“In the depths of a crisis, priorities gravitate towards the here and now,” said Yip. “But how you’re going to stage your rebound and recovery is as much of a priority as fighting the challenge of loss of lives; and if you think about that, you’ll do different things in different ways.” He cited furlough schemes such as that operated by the UK government, which funded private companies to retain and pay their staff even when they couldn’t work. Had businesses laid off swathes of staff, economies would have been far less able to gear up again as the health threat receded.

“Don’t lose the productive capacity, because the sun will shine again – and when it does, you must make sure that you’re able to capitalise on the rebound,” concluded Yip. “It’s easier said than done. In the depths of a crisis, there’s a feeling: will tomorrow ever come? But the answer has to be yes; and you need to be well prepared for that rebound, when it eventually happens.”

The Global Government Summit is a private event, providing a safe space at which civil service leaders can debate the challenges they face in common. We publish these reports to share some of their thinking with our readers: note that, to ensure that participants feel able to speak freely at the Summit, we check before publication that they are content to be quoted. 

The 2024 Summit will be covered in four reports, covering the four daytime sessions:

– Addressing today’s crises – and tomorrow’s catastrophes
The opportunities and risks of AI
A contemporary approach to productivity
– A truly diverse civil service leadership

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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