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Governing in a COVID-19 world: Glyn Davis says we must accept things won’t return to normal

11 October 2020

News and media


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Public sector leaders need to accept that things will never return to the pre-COVID normal and start thinking about how to reinvent government for a permanently changed world, says Glyn Davis AC, CEO of the Ramsay Foundation and former Vice-Chancellor of Griffith University and the University of Melbourne.

“We’re used to crises. We’ve had floods, bushfires, earthquakes in the past. But this is different. This is like fighting a war,” Professor Davis said.

“There is no longer-term endpoint or outcome in sight, and governments can’t just drop everything else.

“For public servants it will require everything we thought to be rethought. The society coming out will not be the same as the society going in. So many things have changed we can never snap back.”

On November 17, Professor Davis will lead the first keynote session in ANZSOG’s new Future public sector leaders’ series, an inspiring series of online masterclasses that bring together leading academics and practitioners to discuss key issues and help strengthen public sector leaders’ capacity to tackle problems in the current complex and ambiguous environment.

The session, Governing in a COVID-19 world: the public service commissioners’ perspective, will feature Australian Public Service Commissioner Peter Woolcott AO and NSW Public Service Commissioner Kathrina Lo in conversation with Professor Davis.

The one-hour keynote will discuss how the commissioners see the challenges of changed expectations of the role of government as a protector of society, what skills are missing from the public sector in the light of the COVID-19 experience and how governments can provide services while dealing with significant debt.

“This keynote session will let people hear from public service commissioners about what’s happening. Hopefully, participants will get a sense of the trends – where we are going, the shifts happening in this profession and the skills to make a contribution,” Professor Davis said.

Professor Davis said that the COVID pandemic and resulting economic crisis came at a point where the dominant model of government that had been in place for the last 30 years had run out of steam.

“The ideology of new public management over the last 30 years has exhausted its potential,” he said.

“Whatever efficiencies you could get are long gone, while the cost has been the loss of expertise inside government.

“How do we rebuild that? We just don’t have the systems and people in government, or that spare capacity, anymore.

“We need to look no further than the hotel quarantine inquiry in Victoria as an example of how we operate with outsourcing. The use of private contractors is business as usual in the public service.”

Professor Davis said that rebuilding that capacity and producing alternatives to the ‘market model’ driving reforms such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme would be a key challenge for governments.

He said the pandemic had also shown that Australia was behind many other countries in its use of data, and that state and federal governments had not been able to pull in all the data that was available to fight COVID-19.

Learning to pivot and build on success

Professor Davis said that in this environment public sector leaders would need to be flexible innovators.

“They’ll need an ability to pivot, as many have already,” he said.

“Think of the great examples across Australia – universities able to get a million students online in a matter of weeks, major organisations carrying on without anyone in the office. As a nation, we effectively introduced a Universal Basic Income and maintained employment by paying organisations to keep staff through the combination of JobSeeker and JobKeeper. We experimented with free childcare and accounted for everyone sleeping on the streets.

“So we’ve seen that things can be done differently. We need to build on that.”

He said that the success of the National Cabinet has shown up some of the problems of Australia’s federal system and provided a good case for another attempt to address them.

Alongside the ability of organisations and government to adapt, the pandemic had also shown the strengths of Australian society and restored trust in governments.

“We have seen social unity and the willingness to accept constraints in the interests of public health – this has been strong despite efforts to undermine solidarity. People are willing to sacrifice. There has not been much sympathy for that view that ‘I have the right not to wear a mask’.

“Underlying this is an important point – political ideology turns out to be of no assistance when dealing with a pandemic, which is about biology and science.”

He said that one key reason for the increase in trust of governments during the pandemic is due to transparent communication and the use of experts, and could be applied to other challenges.

“The willingness from the early days of the crisis to let experts take the lead and explain the policies in terms of evidence, was a rare treat. We could deal in like fashion with climate change and energy policy.”

Professor Davis is just one of a group of leading domestic and international thinkers on public management and leadership, that will provide future public sector leaders with inspiration and practical tools to adapt and succeed in these uncertain times through the Future public sector leaders’ series Other speakers include Professor Zeger van der Wal, Professor Emeritus Cheryl Saunders, Professor Anne Tiernan, Professor Paul ‘t Hart, former Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett, Robin Ryde and Yehudi Blacher.

The series provides a choose-your-own-adventure approach offering participants tiered packages allowing for flexibility and choice.

ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith said public sector leaders needed to ensure they were ready to respond to the complexities of today and the challenges of tomorrow.

“We know the impact of COVID-19 has put increased pressure on hard-working public sector leaders, which is why Future public sector leaders’ features short and engaging masterclasses, designed to maximise the positive impact on day-to-day work.

“The series is designed to strengthen and support new and emerging leaders’ decision-making under pressure, as well as benefit experienced leaders working through the challenges of this constantly and rapidly changing environment.”

The first Future public sector leaders’ event will be held on November 17, with the series running until March next year. Registrations are now open. Find out more about the series here and ask us about our group bookings for a collective learning experience with your colleagues.