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Confronting the big challenges of our time: making a difference during and after COVID-19

26 October 2020

News and media


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A new article by ANZSOG Professor Janine O’Flynn explores the role of public management research in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of building a post-COVID world.

The article, published in one of the field’s top-ranking journals Public Management Review explores the changing role of governments as a result of COVID-19, as well as the specific challenges of trust, citizen coproduction, inequality and entrenched disadvantage.

“The full scale and scope of COVID-19 is still unknown, as is the long-term course of the pandemic, but this is a disruptive moment in history, with more questions than answers, but what is clear is that many complex, interconnected challenges lie ahead,” Professor O’Flynn says in the article.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as an accelerant for many entrenched issues across the world, highlighting injustice, systemic inequality and entrenched disadvantage. Global evidence shows that a growing sense of unfairness negatively impacts on trust in institutions; recent data also shows that people believe that those with less are bearing more of a burden of suffering, illness and sacrifice during the pandemic. These perceptions are playing out in real-time, with the poorest and most vulnerable bearing the biggest burdens of the COVID-19 crisis.”

COVID-19 has led to an increase in government powers, an increase in trust of government among citizens and a greater awareness of the role of government in combatting a society-wide pandemic.

“By design or default, in many countries we are returning to an era of big government. Mass unemployment, catastrophic health outcomes, decimated industries, exploding state debt, growing inequality and extreme poverty are all likely effects of an unprecedented pandemic. Public administration and management must play a part in shaping the responses intellectually and practically. We can do this by working with others and also by acknowledging that our field needs to transform.”

The article says that as the world grapples with the COVID-19 catastrophe, it is important to keep an eye on developments that are out of the spotlight but need continued attention. These include increased violence against women across the world, harsher border action by the USA, increased surveillance of citizens in many nations, and challenges to democracy in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Hong Kong, the USA, Bolivia, India and Australia.

“COVID-19 has been a disruptive force in our field and much attention is turning to understanding the impacts. But we should also be mindful to connect up to pre-COVID developments that were already underway.”

The article argues that public management scholars need to work across a range of boundaries and get more comfortable with complexity.

“Both during and in the aftermath of a catastrophic global pandemic, it is at the intersections, not in silos, that we are likely to move forward intellectually and practically,” Professor O’Flynn says.

“At this moment, space is opening up for a fundamental reshaping of the field, or even more radically, a rethinking of what our ‘field’ even is. ‘What matters’ and the ‘big questions’ are being shaped by new generations of scholars. The shifts we are seeing signal that the big questions might be less binary and more integrated, bridging levels of analysis and be much more embracing of complexity and controversy. This is a positive development and, in my view, we must engage with a much broader set of issues and challenges. We should not leave these concerns to others because they are ‘too hard’ or push them to the margins because they are not ‘part of our field’. It is also time for a reckoning of sorts. We must look at the role that our field has played in creating these injustices and harms, many of which are now being amplified by COVID-19,” Professor O’Flynn says.

The article concludes by saying that public management scholars need to: ‘move out of our silos and work at the intersections to make a difference…..The COVID pandemic will be remembered as such a moment in history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis. If ever there was a time for public administration and management scholars to make that difference, it is now.”

Read the full article here