‘Now everybody feels the stress across the system’: the impact of the era of permacrisis on public servants

By on 07/06/2023 | Updated on 07/06/2023
A picture of lit match
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It is not a surprise that the phrase ‘permacrisis’ has quickly gained popularity in the lexicon. The turbulence that societies have faced in the early years of the 2020s have been unprecedented – a pandemic leading to lockdowns, followed by an economic crisis sparked by a land war in Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and high inflation and an increase in industrial unrest – and public services have had little let up in the pressures they face.

These pressures are reflected in the findings of the Responsive Government Survey. In response to the survey’s headline question, which asks public servants to agree or disagree that ‘my organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end user needs’, there was a decline in the proportion who said that they either agreed or strongly agreed with that statement – from 72% in 2021 to 67% in 2022.

That confidence hit shows the impact of the era of permacrisis – but it is worth noting that it means two-thirds of officials across nine countries still think their organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end user needs.

Read in full: Responsive Government Survey 2023

Declines in confidence are noted in other scores too.  

The proportion of officials who have high confidence that their organisation has robust contingency plans that align with strategy development has fallen since 2021, from 56% to 45%.

However, there remains an appetite to explore new opportunities arising from uncertainty. Nearly three quarters of public servants (71%) agree that being able to adapt to significant change is part of their organisation’s long-term strategy, and over half think their organisation can capitalise on emerging opportunities. In line with survey-wide trends, there is also greater confidence among leaders in their organisation’s ability to respond to uncertainty.

Read more: Lessons for leaders: how top public servants can chart a course to more responsive government

Michael Wernick, the Jarislowsky chair of public sector management at the University of Ottawa and former cabinet secretary of Canada, says that the multi-headed nature of the crises facing governments will require a different response from government.

“The public sector has been very good at responding to disruptions – it’s one of the main learning methods – but over the last year or two, more organisations were hit simultaneously. Now everybody feels the stress across the system, whereas it was much more distributed in the past, and the crises were more episodic.”

Alexander Evans OBE, professor in practice in public policy at the London School of Economics, and former strategy director at the UK Cabinet Office says that there is both less individual resilience, and lower collective resilience, in public sector organisations now after these years of crisis. “There are more gaps in staffing, and the nature of more immediate challenges squeezes out space for adaptive or future-based thinking.”

One other impact of the high level of pressure public servants face is that it makes it more difficult to do anything more than short-term planning, says Evans.

“It’s difficult to get time with presidents, prime ministers or ministers – or with permanent secretaries and other senior officials – to talk about ‘what ifs’. It’s more about ‘now what?’.”

There is, in Evans’ words, if not a permacrisis in government, then at least a “permachallenge” from the aftershocks from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine to high inflation and more industrial action by public servants around the world – but it is a challenge that public servants seem keen to meet.

Join Global Government Forum’s LinkedIn group to keep up to date with all the insight public and civil servants need to know.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *