Chapter 6

Horizon 1
Reacting to (& learning from) the known crisis

Current national responses are shaped by the extent to which the pandemic has taken hold, government capabilities, and civic trust placed in those governments. These responses have surfaced a range of patterns that indicate the need for a fundamental reconfiguration of our governance systems, enabling us to deal more effectively with a new age of risk and to scaffold the rapid transition we are witnessing.

We have seen a spectrum of immediate crisis responses across the world, and while they vary greatly based on the extent of the pandemic, governments’ capabilities, and political disposition towards scientific advice, to name a few, several patterns have emerged. Recognising these will be critical for reconfiguring our governance systems to deal with emerging and cascading risks. It should be noted, however, that this is not meant to evaluate one approach over another nor point to causality but rather to reflect on what has arisen to date.

1. Execute and iterate

The pandemic has opened a political space for forced experimentation, requiring speed and continued iteration of policies to adjust to fast-moving changes. Some governments are being more intentional in this regard. Vietnam’s unique approach for managing the pandemic relies on running multiple experiments︎︎︎ with different institutions to design a low-cost test kit for COVID-19. City authorities around the world are dedicating more of their public space to biking lanes︎︎︎. Some nations are experimenting on the go. Colombia and Bangladesh are iterating entirely new social welfare programmes for millions of people︎︎︎. Around the world, new policy alternatives︎︎︎ are being tried out in response to the health and socio-economic aspects of the crisis. This is likely to continue for months to come, as reopening of the economy will mark a new phase of global trial-and-error︎︎︎, with policies tested to ensure that they maintain the wellbeing of the population. Legitimacy and accountability remain pressing issues, particularly as old paradigms are not flexible or adaptive enough to accommodate the speed of change we are dealing with.

2. Beyond budgets.

Most governments responding to COVID-19 are in uncharted territory, functioning outside their regular budgets. Scrutiny of allocation decisions has been sacrificed in favour of speed and scale of response. Many governments are working to fill the capital gap, either by negotiating debt payment arrangements or raising funds from other sources, in order to maintain various policy support programmes for the population. Fiscal transparency in emergency situations is complex, with crisis response generating dynamics that override ordinary processes. Independent research in 118 countries︎︎︎ validates this, indicating that most governments lack the accountability systems to make their budgets fully open to the public. However, the consequences of today’s decisions will be felt for years. In the post-pandemic era, the scrutiny over what drove public finance︎︎︎ decisions, including details of with whom deals were made and on what basis, is likely to undermine trust and create a legitimacy gap, particularly if there is a lack of transparency or any suspicion of inequality or corruption.

3. Responding with options

Diversity of policy options for responding to the crisis depend on a range of tangible and intangible factors, ranging from resources, infrastructure, and technical know-how to trust and transparency. Digital infrastructure, dubbed as ‘the sanitation strategy of our times︎︎︎’, has provided the public sector with a larger menu of available options for preparedness and response. Governments with the digital infrastructure in place are having an easier time in contact-tracing, deploying vital support, and disbursing cash and subsidies︎︎︎ to citizens and companies. The Colombian government made social welfare provisions for 3.5 million newly needy households in 2 weeks︎︎︎ as a result of a digital infrastructure that enabled rapid identification. The Bangladeshi government created 2 million digital wallets on the basis of national IDs or birth registrations for garment industry employees in 1 week to ensure rapid and safe disbursement of cash.

Nations with dispersed networks of innovation foundations︎︎︎, maker spaces︎︎︎, and a vibrant social sector are capable of orchestrating social capital, knowledge, and other resources toward a strategic objective and deploying a full systems response (the platform state). In India, the social sector is outperforming government︎︎︎ in feeding people, and the Nepal & Bhutan Fab labs︎︎︎ are 3D-printing spare parts for ventilators and lab equipment to respond to the immediate need. These labs also are taking a longer-term perspective, mapping the supply chains of the medical sector, building a catalogue of spare parts, and on-shoring the production of critical equipment spares. The ability to deploy a portfolio of options as a response to the pandemic might point to resilience and adaptation to changing conditions. We have seen the difficulty of outsourcing responses, especially to the private sector, with citizen trust at an all time low︎︎︎. The absence of data and digital skills at the centre of government has become a life or death issue︎︎︎ and outsourcing critical state capacities︎︎︎ in contexts where public-private partnerships are not premised on delivering public value leaves all societies stranded in cases of pandemic-like events. 
City authorities around the world are dedicating more of their public space to biking lanes.
Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

4. Legitimacy and trust

While few of today’s political leaders have faced a crisis like COVID-19, the differences in their response to the pandemic has impacted on a fundamental aspect of the social contract: trust︎︎︎. That is, trust in the state, relating to the executive branch’s capabilities, judgement, and ability to make impartial decisions, and trust in the government, concerning those individuals who currently hold power. Where trust is low or absent, there are rumours, misinformation, and fear. In some cases, these have resulted in actions that have spread rather than contained the virus, including the staging of public protests against lockdown and the refusal to close religious sites. Conversely, leaders whose responses have tended to generate trust via open, frequent, and transparent communication with citizens have been able to deploy a range of nuanced and tailored measures to deal with the crisis and rapidly flatten the rate-of-infection curve.

Recent research reveals shifting dynamics on trust. For the first time since 2011︎︎︎, citizens are demonstrating greater trust in governments to deal with crises. Yet, at the same time, responses to COVID-19 have exposed a growing sense of unfairness and inequality︎︎︎ that is behind the burgeoning distrust of institutions in general. It would appear that the difference in policy approaches is a function of different kinds of trust-driven relationships︎︎︎ between governments and society. How, then, might trust evolve in the coming months as we see nations address the cascade of entangled risks in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis? What will the degradation or absence of risk lead to?

5. Societal sense-making infrastructure

While the spread, timing, and ultimate effects of COVID-19 all remain uncertain, governments are taking 100% of the responsibility for decisions that are based on less than 50% of the information︎︎︎. Not only is there a lack of data, but the available models and systems for assessment and analysis are a poor fit in terms of the nature of the pandemic. For economic, societal, and epidemiological events, statistical models︎︎︎ are used that rely on data from the past in order to predict what will happen in the future. With COVID-19, however, we are dealing with the new and the unknown. The emphasis placed on the quantitative, at the expense of qualitative and ethnographic evidence, results in a skewed cognitive and experiential diversity of perspectives︎︎︎. This has a knock-on effect on decision-making, ignoring numerous blind spots.

There is an opportunity to leverage technology and the collective intelligence of the populace in order to increase cognitive diversity and help make sense of the deluge of information. Instead, many governments are having to address the spread of misinformation and its effects on the most vulnerable. In Iran, for example, 700 deaths resulted from people drinking toxic methanol︎︎︎.

The global response to the pandemic has revealed how highly centralised bureaucracies are ill-equipped to cope with a fast-moving, shapeshifting situation that does not conform to neat categorisation and forecasting. The outliers have proven to be countries where the public sector works within and outside the bureaucracy︎︎︎, leveraging new partnerships for faster and more coherent sense-making of new data and insights. Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala︎︎︎ are cases in point, as is the network of cities in Mexico︎︎︎ that are collaborating to make sense of and respond to the crisis.

6. Designing at scale

In response to COVID-19, governments around the world have rapidly accelerated programmes that were already in the pipeline but slow to take off. These include digital infrastructure, public communication systems, national identity frameworks to support new welfare and universal basic income initiatives, online education, digital healthcare services, rapid rural development to address de-urbanisation, public food and civil supplies distribution systems, cities and states requiring immunity passports, and track-and-trace programmes. This forced acceleration of large-scale programmes stands in stark contrast to the recent trend for small-scale experimentation, informed by design thinking.

The pandemic has created the conditions of near constant emergency. Effective response requires the know-how and capability to undertake large-scale national programmes. What the current programmes reveal is an urgent need for scaffolding, as well as input from three distinct approaches:

  • Mission-driven design, procurement, and implementation frameworks.
  • Humanitarian response programmes.
  • Counter-insurgency operational models.

7. Debt

The combination of shocks to both supply and demand has created the need for bailouts, economic stabilisation, and investment programmes at an unprecedented scale. This impacts countries in different ways. Many nations were already in debt prior to the pandemic and are unable to service either their running or projected debts. New international pacts are likely to emerge as a result of the COVID-disrupted economy, but it remains to be seen whether this will result in a further imbalance of power, favouring cash-rich nations, or whether wealthier states are willing to assume greater responsibility for the good of global relations.

With uncertainty come opportunities for exploitation – where debt-buying serves as something of a Trojan Horse – as well as opportunities for policy innovation. There are already promising signs from middle-income countries. Iraq, Tuvalu, and Azerbaijan, for example, have put in place stimulus packages worth roughly 17-18% of their GDP, while Romania, Georgia, El Salvador, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Peru, and Sudan are on par with Italy, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, and Switzerland with packages amounting to 5% of their GDP.

Horizon 2
Responding to the age of risks & uncertainties 

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