COVID-19 has placed enormous demands on the public sector, stretching public servants at national, state and local government levels. Working on both the public health and economic responses, many public servants report working harder than ever before.
Yet once the acute phase of the crisis passes, the work is unlikely to ease up. The recovery period will require us to grapple with challenges such as reactivation of our cities, school disengagement, mental illness and family violence. It will also require us to reconsider how well prepared we are for future crises. Fundamentally, it will demand that we develop a post-pandemic vision for the country. The recovery phase will be at least as important to Australia’s future wellbeing as the crisis response, but it will require a different approach.
With none of us having experienced a post-pandemic recovery before, we’ll have to look further afield for insights. Many places have recovered successfully from crises in the past – from war, pandemic, recession and natural disaster – and their experiences have much to teach us. These places have frequently gone on to create a better future than the one that existed beforehand, and hence should give us cause for optimism. The 1918 flu pandemic was followed by the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties. After World War II, the German economy grew to become the world’s most advanced. Following the 2010 earthquakes, Christchurch shook off its conservative reputation to become a place where ‘everything is possible’.
From the experience of past recoveries, it’s possible to assemble some insights into the implications for the public sector as we commence the process of shaping our recovery.
Particularly in severely impacted cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, contributions from many organisations will be required during the recovery process. Commonwealth, state and local governments will need to work together collaboratively, leveraging their respective competencies and marshalling the required resources. In particularly impacted areas, a formal partnership may be required, and it may even be appropriate to establish a dedicated recovery agency. This approach – with both a dedicated agency and partnership – was successfully applied in the Indonesian province of Aceh following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
Working in partnership can be challenging to public servants used to working directly to a minister. It will be important that walls between partners are broken down so that the shared purpose – recovery – can be achieved.
Experimental & creative approach
Recovery won’t require us to lock in a grand master plan. In fact, given governments really don’t know what will work and what won’t, it’s probably better that we try lots of different things. Governments will ideally listen to suggestions from experts and community members and give their ideas a go – just as President Roosevelt’s administration did when it constructed its ‘New Deal’ in response to the Great Depression.
Adopting an experimental approach requires accepting that not all initiatives will work. One way to manage the risk is to fund things at a modest level and then scale them up rapidly if they are effective. This implies a more disciplined approach to program evaluation, enabling governments to keep progressing measures that work and discard those that don’t.
Work with community
In the years ahead, community will need to be central to recovery. This was certainly the experience of Aceh, when the government determined that recovery would be community-driven. Although this approach perhaps took longer, the resulting public support for rebuilding efforts yielded long-term dividends. Bottom-up participatory approaches are more likely to bind stakeholders together under a common purpose, ensure project outcomes are tailored to local needs and build the capacity to better respond to future disasters.
While the crisis response has so far demanded a command and control approach, community-led recoveries will require a public sector skill set that is markedly different.
It’s fairly clear that economic stimulus will need to continue for some time, at least until the economy is truly humming. The challenge now is to channel that stimulus into areas that improve our long-run productivity, ideally while also tackling intersecting challenges such as climate change.
Following the Korean war, the South Korean government’s preparedness to support promising strategic industries such as vehicle manufacturing, shipbuilding and electronics contributed to the country’s subsequent “miracle” economic growth. In response to COVID-19, many countries are using their stimulus packages to build new industries. Germany, for example, is investing massively in the green hydrogen sector. Australia has largely vacated the industry policy space in recent years; recovery may demand that this is a capability that needs rebuilding.
As other nations experienced the virus ahead of us, we watched and we learned from their experiences, applying or adopting approaches tested elsewhere, contributing both to our public health and economic responses.
Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, Australia’s approach to learning across time and from other jurisdictions had been somewhat ad hoc and perhaps Anglocentric. Other nations, such as Singapore, embed policy transfer deeply into the fabric of their public sectors, regularly sending public servants on learning missions abroad, where they seek to absorb knowledge from the world’s best. There is lots of room to improve the way policy transfer is brought systematically into Australia’s system of public administration.
Prepare for future crises
Before we get too carried away with our plans for post-COVID recovery, we will need to
remind ourselves that COVID-19 won’t be our last crisis. It’s highly likely that our recovery will be interrupted by another crisis, just as New York City’s recovery from the Global Financial Crisis was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy. With human-induced climate change worsening, natural disasters such as floods, fires, droughts, heatwaves and storms are becoming far more frequent and damaging. We are entering an age of crisis. Responding to, recovering from and planning for crises is a skill set in which we’re going to need to become experts.
Throughout history, cities and nations have emerged from devastation to prosper and thrive. In many cases, countries which experienced a shattering crisis have not merely recovered, but have gone on to lead the world. This should provide us with the confidence that we too can recover and thrive.
Yet recovery is not a given. Australian governments will need to make the right policy choices. Embarking on what – for most of us – will be the biggest recovery process of our lifetimes, it’s important that we approach it in a considered fashion, learning the lessons of the past.
This article is drawn from Andrew Wear’s book, Recovery. How we can create a better, brighter future after a crisis, published by Black Inc.