Mary Martin, director at UN Business and Human Security Initiative, LSE IDEAS, explains the necessity of open collaboration between the private sector and government
As we pass through peak COVID-19 and try to ease out of lockdown, now is the time to reflect about how we have responded to the crisis so far, and how future policy might be shaped by the pandemic. Two features of the present situation stand out, and are important for thinking about to go forward: firstly the sense that although this is a global health issue, that recognises neither borders nor geographic limits, it has been dealt with nationally, with individual governments nationalising and domesticating their crisis response.
As a result, a new kind of inter-state, national rivalry has emerged, with countries seeking to justify their place in league tables of global infection and mortality, blaming other countries and competing in a race for equipment, personal protection gear and vaccines. The risks of policy being caught up in protectionism and geo-political tensions from this route out of COVID-19 are real.
national rivalry has emerged, with countries seeking to justify their place in league tables of global infection and mortality
The response needs to move beyond a small group of national decision-makers. It will require collective action across borders allowing states to share resources and learn from each other to manage new transmissions of the disease. It demands active engagement with international organisations, not just the World Health Organisation, but other parts of the UN system, global financial institutions and regional bodies. At the moment it is not clear who will lead this collective effort, as governments continue to forge their own paths out of lockdown, even within a national polity such as the UK. In a recent conversation with Marcelo Kroc of the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), his main concern was about governance failures rather than the underlying health crisis in the region. The same is true elsewhere in the world.
Private companies and new uses for old supply chains
The second feature of the present situation is that policy has relied heavily on a ‘we are all in this together’ refrain. Success depends on the public following rules set by government. At the same time, it has required resources from beyond the public sector, for example, beds being made available by private hospitals, testing carried out by university and other clinics, and vital supplies sourced from private companies.
Kazumi Nishikawa, principal director at Japan’s ministry of economy and trade, speaking at an LSE event on the comparative economics of the crisis, highlighted examples of car-maker Toyota manufacturing face shields, and electronics giant Sharp supplying masks. Staying on top of the disease will require the ongoing co-operation of private companies in re-purposing supply chains, implementing social distancing and tracing the infection in work places, and not least, operating in a way which does not tip the economy into intensive care through contributing to a surge in unemployment . The easing of lockdown implies a shift of responsibility for people’s safety, from the government protecting health and health services to non-government actors, including business, acting in the public interest.
The private sector and government: A new dynamic?
If collective action – both across borders and at home – is to be a dominant feature of the next stage of the coronavirus fight-back, this requires rethinking the role of the private sector and government. Many companies, before COVID-19, worried about taking on what they regard as government tasks and duties. They want reassurance in understanding the limits of corporate social responsibility (CSR). At the same time, COVID-19 has changed the risk calculus for many businesses. Sustainability is no longer an optional luxury for corporate social programmes. It is how business can ensure stable markets and customer demand. Governments need to respond to this shifting corporate horizon. They need to develop a new way of working with companies that balances co-operation and constraint Setting and enforcing rules will continue to have an important place in a post-COVID world. But governments have to understand how to engage with businesses and civil society at every level from the local to national, regional and international, in order to deliver integrated responses across the spectrum of public policy.
Adaptability and speed of delivery are examples of how the private sector may be more efficient than government in implementing policy. Another is targeting communications to different segments of the population, drawing on business marketing experience. Global companies can add momentum to collective action across borders, transmitting lessons across borders and regions and helping to drive a transnational recovery effort.
Are these collaborations working in the wider world?
There are already imaginative and useful collaborations between companies, governments and NGOs. In Colombia for example, the government, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), business leaders and universities are the backbone of an initiative called ‘Shields for Life’ [Cascos de Vida] to harness commercial capabilities and scientific research to address the many facets of the crisis from public health to risks to livelihoods and the protection of vulnerable people. Private companies in every region of the world have devised quick impact projects to provide clean water for hand-washing, disinfection facilities, and distribute food and other essential supplies.
Examples can be found on the ‘Better Together’ web platform which LSE IDEAS launched last month as part of the School of Public Policy COVID-19 response. The application of technology is a key area where policy and practice innovation is being led by private companies. BT is partnering with digital skills organisations to help individuals, especially those with low or no digital skills, to overcome the challenges of isolation in lockdown. The company is focusing on improving digital literacy, online safety and innovation, as well as to support tech talent in the UK.
Governments and companies alike need to adapt to a new way of working that actively seeks out and leverages private initiatives for public benefit. In the initial weeks of the crisis, most companies were understandably preoccupied by the financial consequences for their own business, as well as the implications for their employees. Over the next few months the challenge will be to repurpose the relationship between business and government, to define a new idea of corporate responsibility and deliver collaborations which work for the good of society as a whole.