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What can the policy sciences tell us about COVID-19?

21 April 2020




The COVID-19 pandemic is urgent, global in scale and massive in impact. What insights can the policy sciences provide about the dynamics of COVID-19?

At a glance

A paper in Policy Sciences – COVID-19 and the policy sciences: initial reactions and perspectives – examines COVID-19 and the ways in which scientific and technical expertise, emotions and narratives have:

  • influenced policy decisions
  • shaped relationships between citizens, organisations and governments.

The paper also discusses the processes of adaptation and change, including:

  • learning
  • surges in policy responses
  • alterations in networks (locally and globally)
  • implementing policies across transboundary issues
  • assessing policy success and failure.

Related research:

1. Policy perspectives

Policymaking (within country)

COVID-19 has generated a surge in the number and type of public policies adopted by governments. Most countries have closed or restricted their borders and restricted travel within borders. One-third of the world’s population has been subjected to some social restrictions, from school closures to stay-at-home orders.

The pathways to policy change during COVID-19 include:

  1. Learning: as demonstrated in the UK’s shift from mitigation (partial closures) to suppression (strict lockdowns) following projections of the infection and death consequences of the former.
  2. Negotiated agreement: as illustrated by the passing of stimulus packages around the world.
  3. Diffusing and transferring ideas: governments are watching each other with many drawing lessons from South Korea’s widespread testing and China’s strict quarantining.

There is great uncertainty about which changes will remain permanent and which will be terminated. This includes questions about how they will be terminated (phased or immediate) and the political consequences of reversing decisions.

Crisis response and management

During complex crises, multiple values are at stake. For the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the choices has been between mitigating versus suppressing COVID-19. Such choices impose different social and economic costs and benefits. They also raise questions about how we value those costs and benefits.

Most policy decisions (and non-decisions) are being heavily scrutinised and politicised through framing contests. Examples include debates around the Swedish strategy to ensure a slow spread of the virus and conflict in Brazil between state governors and the president over the best approach to tame the pandemic. These experiences challenge the notion that policy conflicts can be temporarily suspended in times of crisis.

Global policymaking and transnational administration

The spread of COVID-19 presents a global policy problem but arguably has not (yet) become subject to transnational administration.

COVID-19 could lead to greater “de-globalisation” and a return of the big government. Regional integration could be slowed, as seen in the European Union where nation-states initially closed borders and prioritised national responses. However, the European Union also shows the continuation of collaboration in ensuring the stability of inner markets and joint planning for the economic crisis.

Public sector interventions such as development projects and programs designed around global norms could be at risk. This includes the Sustainable Development Goals.

2. Scientific and technical experts and information

During periods of crisis and high uncertainty, the demand for scientific and technical expertise increases as governments and the public search for certainty in understanding problems and choosing responses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the public and political profile of experts in epidemiology, virology and public health. These experts have become part of decision-making processes as their names and images join political leaders as the face of how governments respond.

Their expertise informs and legitimises decisions such as estimating the likely effects of different policy responses. Formulating and adopting policy responses is the responsibility of government leaders, but as scientific and technical experts become more prominent in the policy process, who is accountable for policymaking becomes more obscure.

3. Emotions and public policy

Policymaking is generally seen as scientific and rational. However, governments are now appealing to emotions to help legitimise policy responses and steer public reactions. Government officials are referring to ‘fear’ of the rapid spread of COVID-19 and emphasising ‘trust’ in fellow-citizens to comply with imposed policy measures.

References have been made to ‘anxiety’ regarding insufficient health resources to contain the pandemic and uncertainty about how long it will last. Policy choices are being legitimised through the emotional needs of the citizenry just as much as through perceptions of objective scientific evidence.

4. Narratives and messaging

The policy sciences focus attention on the messages and messengers that aim to influence decision-makers in government or the public. These messages can influence individual risk perceptions and responses during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding risks is key to persuading people and their governments to do something in the face of uncertainty and crisis.

During a crisis, governments should:

  • provide sufficient information in a timely manner to the public: China’s initial response where the government failed to notify the public and global community about the nascent outbreak falls at one end of the spectrum
  • provide information that is accurate and non-contradictory to the public: Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea’s governments acted swiftly to provide residents information. In contrast, the US government has provided haphazard and contradictory information affecting the public’s trust

Governments can also create confusion and conflict through speculation and dissemination of false information.

5. Learning

The policy sciences have recognised that learning plays a critical role in our ability to understand, influence, and address complex policy issues.

The pandemic illustrates intra-crisis learning, including how experts and decision-makers continuously review and update policy responses as new knowledge becomes available. The time lag between countries’ experience with COVID-19 provides other countries an opportunity to monitor the pandemic and evaluate responses, as a basis for their own policy responses.

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, learning is potentially constrained by the immediacy and urgency of the crisis, popular demands for forceful action and limitations in technical knowledge.

6. Policy success and failure

Policy sciences are often used to understand policy evaluation in more normal rhythms of policy cycles, strong evidence bases, and evaluative techniques. However, COVID-19 has propelled it out of these normal rhythms by imposing extreme urgency, ambiguity and value conflicts.

It is possible to conceive of a spectrum from success to failure. Outcomes can be judged as leaning toward the success end of the spectrum even when there have been shortfalls – such as when initial delays in ordering testing kits still lead to perceived success overall once testing kits arrive and high-volume laboratory processing occurs.

Outcomes may also be judged as leaning toward failure, despite small gains, such as Italy’s collapsing emergency healthcare, despite some lives being saved. In the middle of this spectrum is a mix of successes and failures, akin to a tug-of-war over perceptions of the outcomes related to crisis decisions, processes and politics.

What next?

The analysis draws on immediate reflections based on different perspectives of the policy sciences to understand the COVID-19 pandemic. It is undertaken at a time when the pandemic has not yet reached its peak.

Further research will be needed in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic in areas such as:

  • the effects of non-decisions and policy terminations
  • the relationship between crises, public responses and behavioural change
  • role of emotions and their effects on legitimising decisions and achieving desirable outcomes
  • learning under stress and urgency in the middle of a crisis.

Want to read more?

COVID‑19 and the policy sciences: initial reactions and perspectives – Christopher M. Weible, Daniel Nohrstedt, Paul Cairney et al, Policy Sciences 2020.

This Research Brief is written by Maria Katsonis as part of ANZSOG’s new research translation series, The Bridge. This project is designed to bridge the gap between the research work of academics and the policy work of public managers by providing access to visible and accessible high-quality research. The Bridge is emailed fortnightly to thousands of engaged readers and centers around a Research Brief which distills academic research into an easy-to-read format.


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Published Date: 21 April 2020