The race to protect: how COVID-19 supercharged civil service delivery

By on 28/04/2021 | Updated on 27/01/2022
Businesses, the elderly, and COVID patients were among the groups supported by swathes of new services launched at unprecedented pace. Illustration by Katy Smith

When the pandemic arrived, civil services acted rapidly to protect citizens. At the Global Government Summit, national leaders discussed some of the lessons they’d learned – and looked ahead to the next global crisis. Elaine Knutt reports

The pandemic has presented governments with “wave after wave of challenges”, said Leo Yip, Head of the Singapore Civil Service, as he kicked off the Global Government Summit session examining civil services’ responses to the pandemic and exploring their next priorities. Speaking to senior leaders from the centres of 12 national governments, Yip issued a rallying cry to “lock in” the positive shifts associated with their responses to the pandemic, such as faster and more innovative working, an increase in public trust in government, and an openness to collaboration.

“How do we make sure we secure the gains, that we move forward with a much more agile, much more co-ordinated and aligned public service?” he asked, in a rhetorical question amplified and answered by several participants.

But the debate also recognised the weaknesses in governments’ responses: speakers cautioned against a devaluation of the checks and balances around decision-making, and discussed the continued need for strategic planning in a world where dramatically-altered circumstances will demand new and robust responses.   

Peter Pogačar, Director General of the Public Sector Directorate at the Ministry of Public Administration in Slovenia

Echoing Yip’s warning of a regression to the “old normal”, Peter Pogačar, Director General of the Public Sector Directorate at the Ministry of Public Administration in Slovenia, called on his international colleagues not to revert to civil service default settings once the crisis eases. “I think we have learned that we should never go back to how it was; we should keep the good things that were shown in the time of crisis,” he said. And in today’s unstable world, “the most important skill in the future will be the ability to continuously learn, and to have a civil service that’s ready to adapt.”

This ability to learn and adapt, he said, depends on great public sector leadership. “The time of crisis has shown that… it is really about the people, about leadership: that you have the right people on the right spot,” he said. “And this should be a message for the future. We need strong leaders: we need their knowledge, we need to encourage them.”

This is a good time to draw in talent, he added – for the public sector’s stock is high. During the pandemic “it was really the state which was there, not the business sector, not the non-governmental organisations: it was the state that adopted the measures to help the economy, to help the people,” he said. “And it was all done by the civil service in a really short period of time.”

The value of values

Hannah Cameron, Deputy Commissioner at New Zealand’s Public Service Commission

In New Zealand, trust in the government has soared over the last year. Data released after the Summit showed an 18 point rise in those saying they trust the public sector, from 51% to 69%. Hannah Cameron, Deputy Commissioner at New Zealand’s Public Service Commission, pointed to a number of factors behind the jump.

The public sector’s culture of open government is important, she said: papers on cabinet decision-making are released, and the public has access to data on COVID infections. “That sense of transparency of information was very powerful and reassuring, and supported that element of trust,” she said.

New Zealand’s ability to rapidly build new digital systems for wage subsidies and economic support was also a factor, she commented: “Agencies put things in place and created digital solutions in a very agile way. It’s been a really good way to show what government can do and how the public service can respond, debunking myths around public service being slow and unable to deliver things at pace.”

And alongside openness and effectiveness, Cameron noted, governments also need to wear their public service hearts on their sleeves – setting high standards, and living by them. “In order to achieve trust, we need two sides to the coin,” she said. “We need a very responsive public service that is able to deliver services, but we also need a high-integrity and value-driven public service to provide that legitimacy.”

Red letter data

Joyce Dimech, Permanent Secretary at Malta’s Ministry for Research, Innovation and the Co-ordination of Post Covid-19 Strategy

In Malta, said Joyce Dimech, Permanent Secretary at the country’s Ministry for Research, Innovation and the Co-ordination of Post Covid-19 Strategy, enforced remote working and the huge new demands created by the pandemic have combined to break down old habits and free up innovation. Officials developed AI-powered chatbots and an AI-enabled ‘test and trace’ system, she explained, while its national ICT agency developed a telemedicine service to monitor COVID cases at home.

Staff worked across traditional boundaries and adopted new technologies, she added: “I’m confident that this experience … places government agencies in a position to make rapid advancements in performance, leaving legacy technology and operations behind in favour of new capabilities adopted during the pandemic.”

Those new capabilities include the ability to get far more value out of data – both that held by government bodies, and that held in the private sector. Jennifer Duncan, Vice President for Government Innovation at knowledge partner Mastercard, explained that the company’s digital systems facilitate 90% of UK salary payments – so during the crisis, it could provide the UK government with detailed information on how earnings were changing in close to real time. “The UK, as a consequence of having that digital infrastructure, has had access to a huge amount of detail that hasn’t been possible in some other countries, “ she noted.

Risks in assessing risk

Delegates also debated whether the pandemic had altered perceptions and calculations of risk within public service organisations. Sir Suma Chakrabarti, a former senior UK civil servant and EBRD president who is now chair of the development think tank ODI and an adviser to the presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, pointed out that governments had reacted speedily to a sudden, fast-moving crisis – taking plenty of risks along the way. Climate change is a still bigger threat, he said, but governments find it much harder to make sacrifices and challenge vested interests now when the consequences of failing to do so won’t be felt for years. 

Sir Suma Chakrabarti, a former senior UK civil servant and now chair of the ODI think tank

There’s a problematic attitude, he said, “with the whole topic about climate change: why should you bear the risks and the sacrifice today, when you know that this is a long game?” By contrast, investing to tackle the pandemic generates a return almost immediately: “That’s quite different, because the risks and the rewards get rolled into one book temporarily.”

Chakrabarti, a member of a WHO’s Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development, also suggested that governments will in future be judged on their pandemic resilience – with the most resilient winning the trust of other governments and businesses. “I think this is something that will happen, just like climate change is now built into the assessments by rating agencies,” he said. “I think this is going to happen, and I suspect that’s going to be a recommendation of the WHO commission.”

New Zealand’s Cameron raised another point about risk: because failing to support people and businesses would have resulted in huge and rapid damage, civil servants have been willing to take much greater risks than during normal times – but that can weaken the accountability and transparency so crucial to retaining public trust. “There’s a question for me about accountability going forward,” she said. “Some of these bureaucratic processes that slow things down are there because of risk. So I’m interested to know how we ‘lock in’ the gains, while still working out what is the right level in terms of pushing into that higher level of risk appetite.”

Raise your eyes to the horizon

So agility and responsiveness have helped governments react to the many economic, social and health challenges presented by COVID-19. But one senior official urged leaders not to stop looking ahead and addressing the next threat. In these highly uncertain times, he acknowledged, the strategies and goals set out in 2019 now look hopelessly outdated: “People say: ‘It doesn’t matter anymore, things have changed so quickly’.” Yet even as the cards are in the air, he argued, governments can begin predicting where they’ll fall: yesterday’s forecasts might be redundant, but the ability to forecast “has become even more important.”

Yip agreed that civil servants cannot simply forego long-term thinking in favour of flexible responsiveness, arguing that altered economic and social conditions post-pandemic will demand strategic, top-down responses. “Even in a crisis like this, strategic planning – planning for tomorrow – cannot stop. In fact, I think the imperatives for thinking about tomorrow are even stronger, because the pandemic has changed, essentially, the environment of tomorrow.”

Finding a balance between agility and strategy, pace and propriety, civil servants must now simultaneously address the pandemic, and look towards recovery. In the words of Malta’s Dimech: “Public services must gradually adjust to this new reality across three overlapping dimensions: crisis response, pandemic operations, and long term recovery. This is a balancing act in managing the now and the next; the present state and the future reality.”

Although Global Government Summits are private events, GGF produces reports to share as much of the discussions as possible with our readers – checking before publication that participants are happy to be quoted. This is our second report. The first covered Singapore chief Leo Yip’s reflections on the year of COVID-19; the third the big reforms and innovations that could improve civil service capabilities; and the fourth how the pandemic is likely to change the work of government. Visit the Global Government Summit website for more information about the event.

About Elaine Knutt

One Comment

  1. Muyiwa says:

    Good work

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