COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

Future implications of the impact of COVID-19 on governance and public service

What will governance and public service be like post COVID-19? We will not and should not revert to “business as usual” after this crisis. We should draw on the maxim from the United Nations (UN) 2030 agenda – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – to “leave no one behind” in achieving a more sustainable, equitable, inclusive and secure/peaceful future. We should start a dialogue about the current and future implications of COVID-19 on governance and public service.

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Photo: Cleopatra Adedeji/CDC
Photo: Cleopatra Adedeji/CDC

As Time magazine observed: “The COVID-19 crisis is not just one of health and the economy, but also has other dimensions. COVID-19 is already challenging our assumptions about humanity, about society, about greed and selfishness, about the need to cooperate.” The pandemic has also brought the issue of trust to the centre of the general discourse – trust, or the lack thereof, “among humans, among groups, among countries, between citizens and governments, and faith in many of our assumptions about life, not only beliefs and humanity, but also knowledge itself”.

#COVID19 may present opportunity, but will also have devastating consequences beyond health if governments do not intervene decisively and sustainably. We will not and should not revert to “business as usual” after this crisis @GJFras

During this era of fake news, there is also an increasing caution among people about the information circulated. “We are beginning to doubt social media and many other previously trusted sources of information and knowledge, as we slowly realize that we are inundated with fake news, information and advice, not least by those we have become accustomed to trust, including family and friends.”

In part, this is also informed by the realisation that, in instances, purported “solutions” “come from those with agendas of their own, resulting in self-interested promotion of egos, influence or business opportunities, e.g. to sell medical supplies or some other really or purportedly needed ‘solutions’, items and services”.

The Financial Times (UK), in a 4 April 2020 editorial, argued: “Radical reforms – reversing the prevailing policy of the last four decades – will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.” So, capital through a Financial Times editorial may be advocating for more redistribution, bigger government and even a basic income grant?

In 2007, Professor Demetrios Argyriades argued that “allied to the implicit faith in the private sector capacity to drive the growth agenda, the concept of the ‘Shrinking State’ emerged as the critical element of the ‘Washington Consensus’, dominated the scene in the early nineties. The model still retained its importance as the century draws to its close…” “After three-and-a-half decades of reduction, deconstruction and de-institutionalization of government, the time has surely come to revisit and rethink our field and our profession” (Kim and Argyriades, 2015: 14-17, 451-453; Dwivedi et al, 2007:121). No one size fits all countries, but all must in earnest address the causes of disarray, as well as look to the future to forestall globally emerging challenges and try to take advantage of looming opportunities. 

“In spite of soaring markets, political unrest in several parts of the world, lingering social crises and a rampant capacity deficit undermining trust in governance make it abundantly clear that broad segments of our field need to be reconfigured. Restoring public trust and public service professionalism are shared global ‘musts’ that ought to be high up on the priority order, worldwide.” Who would have imagined a convergence in thinking by an editorial in the Financial Times and Professor Argyriades, but such is the humbling impact of COVID-19.

As Emannuele D’Achon, a member of the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA), mentioned at the 19th session of CEPA, the “low paid ‘street-level bureaucrats’, health workers, garbage collectors, care workers and cleaners – these essential service workers – among others have come to the foreground and “all of a sudden, it has become crystal clear who’s doing the truly important work in care and in education, in public transit and in grocery stores”. 

The use of technology in public services has surged. What has always been considered as change that would take decades before adoption has been implemented in weeks, for example the adoption of homeschooling and the use of technology to link educators and students. As GovLoop contributor Charles Lewing states: “Many parents would have never known that they prefer online homework or partial homeschooling for their children, had it not been for COVID-19. Many universities are seeing a change in their customers’ needs as well. This will force massive changes as more students will now forgo expensive room and board for online learning. Once companies sort out their respective remote work policies, it will still not make financial sense to deny employees the option to work from home.”

But there is a reminder that we should “leave no one behind”

Education civil society organisations and social movements in South Africa appealed to the Department of Basic Education to focus its interventions on learners who are least likely to receive support outside of government: “The disruption to schooling has worsened pre-existing inequalities in our education system and our society. While some schools have been able to provide learners with printed learning materials, online resources and virtual lessons, other learners and caregivers are without any resources or support. Social inequalities are exacerbating education inequalities. Many learners lack data or access to devices to support online learning and access to electricity remains a problem. In some cases, learners do not have a home environment conducive to learning and households are struggling to put food on the table.”

This is a reminder that COVID-19 may present opportunity, but will also have devastating consequences beyond health if governments do not intervene decisively and sustainably.

As argued by Lewing, COVID-19 is showing employees and management alike that daily in-person meetings can be substituted by a few emails or remote meetings. The public sector will be changed by the workplace innovation spawned by the virus. Employees will want to forego the traditional commute and the routine workday, as remote work becomes a reality. The general public will want to forgo standing in line at city hall to pay a water bill, when a few clicks on the entity’s website will accomplish the same task. Council meetings will be held online.

Accenture, in a recent article, observed: “The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented challenge. It threatens our health, livelihood and peace of mind – our very way of life. Both the public and private sectors have important leadership roles in developing a response. Citizens and businesses expect government to provide guidance they can trust, services that meet their needs and financial security… These interests are common in communities around the globe. They represent ways that organisations are already joining together on what must be done. It is critical to look both at the immediate response toward recovery and preparations for future scenarios.”

We have seen public servants – especially essential workers – play amazing roles during this pandemic, whilst we have also seen major chasms in service delivery and the quality of services. With sound leadership, trust in government, competence and sound public policy and the importance of “whole of government” and “whole of society” responses cannot be over-emphasised. This could well be the catalyst for convergence in the attainment of the SDGs and overcoming COVID-19. So, we are forward looking whilst handling the present, and social compacting is key.

Geraldine J. Fraser-Moleketi is chair of the Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA), a technical committee of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University. She tweets at @GJFras

This is an edited text of a speech made on 29 May 2020. The full version is available at: http://saapam.co.za/address-by-geraldine-j-fraser-moleketi-on-public-service-and-covid-19-the-future-implications/

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