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COVID-19 as a game changer for public administration and leadership

15 June 2021



Crowd of people walking street wearing masks

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the public sector is facing turbulent problems characterised by the emergence of unpredictable and uncertain events. A paper in Public Management Review discusses turbulence and the implications for public administration and leadership.

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From complex problems to turbulence

Complex problems are characterised by unclear problem definitions, complex causalities, conflicting goals and a lack of standard solutions. These problems are best solved through multi-actor collaborations in networks and partnerships that:

  • mobilise valuable resources
  • spur innovation
  • build common ownership over joint solutions.

In addition to being complex, some problems are also characterised by being turbulent – surprising, inconsistent, unpredictable, and uncertain. The turbulence concept originally developed in physics to describe chaotic fluid dynamics, such as stormy weather or complex river currents.

Turbulent problems persistently disrupt our society and challenge the public sector. Examples include violent terror attacks, flooding and drought induced by global warming, and the global financial crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a more recent case in point.

Robust governance strategies for tackling turbulent problems

In the face of the social and economic disruption caused by turbulent problems, it is not enough for the public sector to activate a predefined emergency management plan. Turbulent problems call for:

  • cross-boundary collaboration
  • public innovation
  • the development of robust governance strategies that support adaptive adjustment.

Robust governance strategies enable decision makers to uphold a public agenda in the face of challenges arising from turbulent events. They facilitate flexible adaptation and agile modification.

Robust governance strategies draw on the notion of dynamic resilience where social and political actors abandon the idea of restoring a past equilibrium. Instead they engage in an adaptive search for a new, emerging order. Robust governance relies on adaptation and may change administrative institutions, regulatory processes and policy instruments to meet new and emerging conditions.

Six types of strategies

Six types of strategies appear promising for more robust governance solutions.

  1. Scalability aims to flexibly mobilise resources across organisations, levels, and sectors to scale the provision of particular solutions to meet changing needs and demands. During the current COVID-19 crisis, some countries created a public job bank where trainees and retired healthcare workers could sign up to assist public employees in carrying out healthcare work on a voluntary basis in the event of acute shortages.
  2. Prototyping aims to create new, adaptive solutions through iterative rounds of prototyping, testing, and revision based on prompt feedback.
  3. Modularisation aims to create solutions that are divided into a series of modules that can be used flexibly in response to changes of the problem.
  4. Bounded autonomy embeds broad-based ownership to a strategy by involving local actors in implementation and encouraging adaptation on the ground. There have been cases where local municipalities, school principals, teachers and parents have collaborated to find safe and responsible ways of re-opening schools after the COVID-19 lockdown. These was based on national health regulations and required interpretation and adjustment to fit local conditions.
  5. Bricolage aims to flexibly use and combine available ideas, tools, and resources to fashion a workable solution.
  6. Strategic polyvalence aims to deliberately design solutions that can be taken in new directions and serve new purposes depending on demands, barriers and emerging opportunities.

What this means for public administration

Public institutions and programs need to more flexible and agile so they can:

  • adapt in response to turbulence
  • scale their problem-solving efforts up and down.

The zero-error culture that pervades public administration needs to be held at bay so that errors resulting from experimentation in turbulent environments are not judged harshly. Instead they should be seen as the first step towards learning.

Public organisations also need to strengthen their collaboration with affected actors in other sectors. Multi-actor collaboration can:

  • mobilise relevant resources
  • enhance knowledge-sharing and coordination
  • stimulate innovation
  • build common ownership to joint solutions.

What this means for leadership

When confronting turbulent problems, public leaders will not precisely know what the problem is, what the goals are and what it takes to achieve them. Public leaders must engage in a dialogue with employees and stakeholders and act as stewards.

They will also have to learn to operate in uncertain and unpredictable circumstances and attempt to solve problems under pressure. Leaders will have to:

  • trust their instinct
  • consult real-time data
  • accept cognitive dissonance and imperfect solutions
  • build alliances
  • learn from experience.

Communication skills are also essential. People look to public authorities for credible advice in turbulent times. Robust governance strategies require clear communication about:

  • societal risks and what people can do to reduce them
  • explanation of changing public goals and efforts
  • openness about reasons for taking a particular action and the inherent dilemmas.

Want to read more?

The COVID-19 pandemic as a game changer for public administration and leadership? The need for robust governance responses to turbulent problems – Christopher Ansell, Eva Sørensen & Jacob Torfing, Public Management Review, Issue 7, Volume 23, 2021

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Published Date: 15 June 2021