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An emerging legacy
How COVID-19 could change the public sector
While governments and public services continue to respond at scale and pace to the COVID-19 pandemic, its leaders have begun to consider how the crisis might permanently change their agencies – and seven legacies are emerging.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been unchartered territory for governments. Elected representatives, officials and public service leaders around the world are making profound decisions with no precedent to draw upon and little certainty around when the crisis will end. As French President Emmanuel Macron observed, this is a kinetic crisis – in constant motion with little time to make far-reaching decisions.
In the UK and across much of Europe, government responses have been radical and exhaustive. Health services have mobilised at scale, finance ministries have acted fast to support businesses, and the full spectrum of departments have made rapid adjustments to ensure public needs continue to be met.
While leaders across the public sector remain focused on the immediate COVID-19 threat, they are increasingly mindful of its longer-term implications – and for some, the crisis could be an inflection point for their agency. This paper explores the pandemic’s likely legacy on governments, public services and the debates that shape them.
Seven emerging legacies
While the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, our current thinking suggests the crisis is creating seven legacies for the public sector:
1. Our view of resilience has been recast.
This pandemic has permanently altered how governments and their agencies view resilience for their organisations, and for the nation state.
Recent weeks have seen thousands of business continuity plans opened by public bodies around the world, and many will have required considerable adaptation to deal with a prolonged tragedy and national lockdown rather than an isolated disaster.
For governments, influenza and other human illnesses have been high on national risk registers for some years. Their emergency plans have drawn on experiences of different flu strains as well as more than 30 new infectious diseases that have emerged in the past 25 years. But the COVID-19 pandemic has reached a scale not experienced since Spanish Flu in 1918, when global mobility was limited and radio was the fastest form of connectivity. As the crisis subsides, governments and individual public bodies will be able to learn lessons and rethink their continuity plans, substantially upgrading our national resilience.
Our view of key workers in a crisis has expanded as well. While the pandemic has rightly put a spotlight on the extraordinary work of frontline health and care workers, it has also illustrated the crucial importance of others needed to tackle the virus and maintain daily life – whether they are delivering the back-offices that power the medical frontline, stacking shelves in supermarkets, maintaining broadband and mobile connectivity, delivering to peoples’ homes or any of the other professions that have stepped up to the plate in recent weeks.
2. Governments could be left with higher debt after a shock to the public finances
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that the pandemic could deliver the biggest blow to the global economy since the Great Depression in the 1930s. In the UK, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has set out a scenario in which the public finances could be hit harder by coronavirus than the 2008 global financial crisis – but far more briefly.
The OBR’s post-pandemic scenario models a drop in the government’s tax receipts three times worse than the drop in the wake of the global financial crisis, which would create a sudden shortfall of £273 billion between the state’s income and its spending – the so-called deficit. While that would dwarf the £154 billion deficit left after the financial crisis, the OBR suggests that a rebounding economy and an end to temporary policy measures could see it return to an expected level in the following year. That contrasts to the years after the financial crisis in which the government enacted austerity measures to close the deficit over the course of a decade.
The more sustained legacy for the public finances could be higher levels of government debt. Currently standing at £1.8 trillion, the OBR’s scenario suggests it could reach £2.2 trillion in the financial year ahead, briefly surpassing 100 per cent of GDP, and remain at a heightened level for some years to come.
3. Debates around inequality and globalisation are renewed
Many commentators have observed that the COVID-19 crisis has amplified inequalities. National lockdowns have been inherently harder for families with no outdoor space, little access to technology and lower or interrupted incomes.
In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has argued that pressure on health services combined with an economic downturn are likely to heighten existing inequalities. In the US, some cities have reported disproportionately higher mortality rates among African Americans. And globally, the United Nations has warned that economic distress, children being permanently at home, increased domestic violence and health agencies under pressure all increase inequalities against women.
Beyond the crisis, all of this will renew pressure on governments to tackle inequality, and some may well pursue more radical policy thinking. Spain’s social security minister, for example, hopes to see a Universal Basic Income rolled out as a permanent economic instrument. Other governments will want to pick up where they left before the crisis. The need for economic stimulation post-pandemic may well reinforce the UK government’s commitment to ‘level up’ regions across the country by boosting infrastructure spending, skills, research and more.
The crisis has also re-ignited the debates around globalisation and nationalism that have characterised politics in some advanced economies over recent years. For some, the pandemic has proved the importance of international co-operation and the value of supra-national organisations. For others, it has illustrated the need for domestic self-sufficiency and local supply chains. Those debates look set to continue, renewed by the pandemic experience.
4. Lines have blurred between organisations and sectors
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a high-pressure environment in which the lines between government agencies, and between the public and other sectors, have all blurred in the public interest. Governments drove that process by engaging partners and suppliers on critical projects while easing regulations over procurement and data sharing.
As a result, companies and charities have been working with public bodies on procuring medical components, manufacturing ventilators, establishing medical facilities, creating digital products, mobilising volunteers and much more.
As the crisis subsides, governments will be able to reflect on where public bodies excelled and where other sectors were effectively deployed to deliver the best outcomes. Government footprints could well be extended in the years that follow the pandemic, but policymakers will have a clearer view on how the public sector can respond to social and economic challenges by working with a broader eco-system of partners, collaborating and investing together.
5. The lockdown has accelerated collaborative technologies
For many agencies, the shift to mass remote working has been successful and the crisis has seen a leap forward in the use of collaborative technologies. Video-calling app Zoom was downloaded 2.13 million times by people around the world on the day the UK went into lockdown – up from 56,000 a day just two months before. Similarly, collaboration platform Microsoft Teams saw an increase of 12 million new users in just one week in March.
After an extensive period of remote working, many organisations will want to retain its advantages going forward. That will come with a range of technological and HR implications, and for the public sector, continued widespread remote working could have specific implications for the size, location and composition of the government estate. Where governments have spent the last decade asking whether civil servants need to be based in the premium real estate of their capital cities, in the decade ahead they may ask if officials need office space at all.
The crisis has also seen a re-valuation of the importance of data. Faced with the pandemic emergency, governments around the world eased regulations including those that govern data-sharing between agencies in order to find new ways to battle the spread of the virus and co-ordinate responses. Post-crisis, they may reflect that these arrangements should be preserved, or whether the value of sharing and using data to protect the public makes legislative hurdles worth jumping.
More widely, the pandemic has accelerated the use of technologies in the public sector and remade the case for further transformation. The number of people accessing England’s NHS 111 online system had its busiest day ever on 17 March when 950,000 users accessed the service, compared to a daily pre-pandemic average of 10,000. And in just two weeks of lockdown, the number of court cases held as video calls in England and Wales rose by 800 per cent.
Of course, none of these technologies would be available without connectivity into peoples’ homes, and the pandemic has underlined the importance of our broadband infrastructure as part of our national resilience.
6. Civil society has been rebooted and citizen behaviour may change
Since the scale of the pandemic became evident, people have reached out to their communities to offer practical help and emotional support. In the UK, some 750,000 people volunteered to support the NHS by offering practical help including back office administrative support and producing comfort packs for patients. In Denmark, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mobilised volunteers around the world to offer accommodation to Danes abroad. In France, volunteer groups have organised themselves to offer social assistance that includes distributing food packages, capturing details of rough sleepers or phoning people living alone. Civil society has effectively been rebooted in the face of a crisis.
Predicting when normal life could eventually resume is inherently complex. As US disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci said, “you don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline” and governments are grappling with a range of factors and models to guide when lockdowns can be lifted. For vulnerable groups in particular, social distancing may be required for some time to come, which means that ongoing community support and civic engagement could be vital for a ‘new normal’ ahead of us.
As normal life eventually resumes, these extraordinary levels of volunteering will inevitably drop off and it remains to be seen whether communities stay more engaged and cohesive. Whether they do or not, the crisis will leave a civic legacy – even if that is simply a better understanding of how volunteering can be mobilised during a national emergency.
More widely, governments will need to understand how, if at all, citizen behaviour has changed going forward. In some areas, the pandemic may leave a lingering legacy on demand such as in higher education, for which the numbers of international students could be subdued in the short and medium term with significant implications for those institutions that rely on them for income. More positively, insight from the crisis could inform new strategies to relieve pressure on infrastructure and public services, or drive behaviour change to help meet net zero carbon targets.
7. The legacy that still needs to be captured
In many public bodies, the pandemic has surfaced ideas for longer-term change that would make them more resilient, effective or able to additional value. But amid the pressures of crisis management, there is a danger those ideas will be lost.
Leaders can create opportunities to capture these flashes of inspiration by giving their people mechanisms and opportunities for sharing them, which might include live online discussions or crowdsourcing platforms in which anyone can share their own ideas or develop others.
Many leadership teams are focused almost exclusively on their organisation’s pandemic emergency response, limiting their bandwidth for post-crisis thinking. Where that’s the case, they could seek out the capacity for post-crisis recovery elsewhere. Options to do that include establishing an alternate leadership team made up of colleagues not working on the emergency response, with a remit to focus on capturing and developing post-pandemic ideas and plans.
Authors: Rebecca George OBE and Ed Roddis with contributions from Ben Powell, James Taylor, Simon Dixon and Hywel Madden.