COVID-19 and crisis management: Reflecting upon challenges faced in the public sector

Dr Phillip Whiteman, Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Birmingham, reflects on how the public sector has responded to the initial challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

From central and local government to emergency services, social care, and education; anyone working in public services will know that it takes a different kind of mindset to keep these organisations up and running.

Yet in March this year, everything changed: we became faced with a crisis that not only demanded a swift response, but a rational and a collective one too.

In this type of situation, taking the Government’s response and translating it into a service provision that still meets the needs of communities is incredibly challenging. In the case of COVID-19, not only was the need for change coming at incredible speed, the situation was in a constant state of flux.

Whilst the Government issues the overarching directives, the onus of putting the plans into action falls firmly on the shoulders of public administrators to interpret, prioritise, implement, and police.

The politics-administration dichotomy

Therefore, what we needed first was problem solving and action. What became critical to containing and mitigating the effects of the pandemic was the ability to communicate essential information to entire populations – without diluting the message.

I recently read an article from Professor Baum (Harvard Kennedy School) who highlighted that with previous epidemics – such as H1N1 in 2009 – the public health emergency was at risk of being politicised – and as a result, some citizens lost trust in the government. (1)

Such scepticism has consequences, and it can be a very difficult balance to strike:

As my colleague at the University of Birmingham, Dr Bartels, recently explained; “it is widely accepted that public managers operate in a political environment. Ignoring or trying to suppress the politics of administration is not just inaccurate, it is deceitful.” (2)

Therefore, the imperative to act quickly often highlights a focus on short-term interests over long-term goals. The challenge from a public management perspective is to ensure that key messages – from changes in service provision, access to community support or other provisions – meets the needs of all communities and demographics.

Community centric response

Despite the (sometimes) outdated perception that the bureaucratic nature of the public sector makes it slow to react, it has been commendable in keeping services running, adapting to change and prioritising focus areas in the wake of the pandemic.

The dominant and most visible focus was placed on our healthcare system – and the restructuring of services to meet a projected increase in demand of patients. However, it has been far wider reaching than the National Health Service.

Schedule 12 of the Coronavirus Act modified the powers and duties of local authorities in England and Wales and enabled them to lawfully prioritise services. (3) With a huge amount of responsibility, public administrators worked rapidly to assimilate the guidance, prioritise and adapt service provision to work within the confines of lockdown, social distancing and economic instability.

Police services had new emergency laws to enforce; schools remained partially open for essential care, whilst providing home learning for pupils who could not attend in person; food boxes were sent to over half a million people most at risk and supermarkets used government data to prioritise food delivery slots. (4)

These new initiatives, reprioritisation of services and communication strategies required public administrators to call upon a diverse range of skills and demonstrate a level of agility and resilience that was unprecedented. Far from being tied down by bureaucracy, the COVID-19 crisis has shown the public sector in a new light; innovative, adaptable, and more essential than ever.

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References

1. BAUM, M (2020) How public sector and civil society can respond to coronavirus (Online) Available at: <https://www.hks.harvard.
edu/faculty-research/policy-topics/health/how-public-sector-and-civil-society-can-respond-coronavirus> [Accessed 16.05.20]
2. BARTELS, K (2020) The impact of the Coronavirus Act 2020 on public services (Online) Available at: <https://inlogov.com/2020/
04/14/weber-and-the-politics-of-the-covid-19-crisis/> [Accessed 16.05.20]
3. UNKNOWN (2020) The impact of the Coronavirus Act 2020 on public services (Online) Available at: <https://www.dwf.law/
Legal-Insights/2020/March/The-impact-of-the-Coronavirus-Act-2020-on-public-services> [Accessed 16.05.20]
4. UNKNOWN (2020) Over half a million food packages delivered to those at risk (Online) Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/over-half-a-million-food-packages-delivered-to-those-at-risk> [Accessed 16.05.20]

 

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Lecturer in Public Policy and Administration
University of Birmingham
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