9th April 2020
Paul 't Hart
in ANZSOG's Leading in a Crisis series
Professor of Public Administration at Utrecht University,
Associate Dean of the Netherlands School of Public Administration in The Hague
There was an awkward moment a week or so ago in the Netherlands. A Dutch television celebrity debating the Corona crisis asked a rhetorical question: ‘Why are we disrupting our entire economy, sinking millions of people into unemployment, poverty, domestic tensions, psychological stress and depression, in order to save one per cent of the population, mostly 80-plus elderly or people with bad lifestyles, many of whom have a limited life expectancy anyway?’
Social media responses were divided.
The mainstream commentariat denounced his cavalier demeanour. Meanwhile, in government buildings, public servants and politicians could not help but begin to debate versions of that very question, knowing full well that the politics of the COVID-19-induced distribution of risk and pain were going to be on every government’s agenda. The tough questions of who gets what, when and how, and how to balance illness, death, disruption, unemployment, dislocation, will soon be on every government’s agenda.
It has become standard form to speak about the early 21st century as the era of ‘VUCA’: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Quite a mouthful, but it sounds vaguely appropriate and leaders nod pensively when you present them with this characterisation of our times. COVID-19 has put an end to that. Responding to, and moving on from, the widening, deepening and cascading mega-crisis will continue to present policymakers, professionals, politicians and stakeholders with stark choices. The initial posture of many governments to base their policy decisions on the ‘advice of our medical experts’ has already become unsustainable.
COVID-19 is now not ‘just’ a pandemic, it is a supply-chain, macro-economic, social and geopolitical crisis. Yes, it presents us with staggering technical challenges of mustering surge capacity in the health system, ensuring business continuity in critical sectors, delivering massive tax relief and income support programs in real-time, while discovering effective techniques for halting the spread of the disease and eventually eradicating it.
It also presents us with even more staggering adaptive challenges that involve addressing the gap between what we thought the world we were living in was like and what the world has become and working out how we should manage this new reality. There are scarcities of critical resources, there are economies going off cliffs, there is a slow-motion tsunami of secondary suffering heading towards us, and there is the accelerating demise of the United States as the dominant global power. Governments, markets and communities everywhere must come to terms with loss, grief, radical uncertainty, loss of control and value conflicts. If ever there was VUCA writ large, this is it.
At the same time, like any other crisis, COVID-19 also unleashes human ingenuity, fast-tracks, improvisation and experimentation. It provides new justifications for stepping up hitherto stalemated reforms and hoped-for societal transformations. A smart government will harness that energy.