Public policy lessons from Covid-19

By: |
August 3, 2020 6:50 AM

Create policy councils for subjects that require a mix of administrative guidance, and technical & specialist inputs.

The past few months have shown that those leaders empowered to implement policy without hindrance were relatively more successful.

This is not an article on Covid-19. But it does draw on my impressions of the manner in which Covid-19 has been handled over the last six months to reflect on the formulation and implementation of public policy. Covid-19 caught every public authority by surprise. No one was prepared for the speed of its diffusion; the virulence of its impact; the ‘known unknowns’ of its duration; and the ethical conundrums raised by the debate over ‘lives’ and ‘livelihoods’. The initial response of the Indian authorities was swift and surgical—a national lockdown following a four-hour notice—but thereafter the policies were made on the hoof, understandable perhaps, given the nature of the raging virus; the spread of poor, at times misleading, data and deepening public anxiety.

The results have been mixed. Some authorities were relatively successful, and others clearly lost control. This raises the question: Are there factors beyond the state of the public health infrastructure and the medical advice to ‘test, trace and isolate’ that explain these differences in results? What lessons does the Covid-19 experience offer the practitioners of public policy?

With the benefit of six months of hindsight, I discern two public policy-related learnings and offer one suggestion.

One, governments cannot, on their own, manage such a crisis. They do not have the tools—technical, scientific, even institutional—to tackle such ‘invisible’ black swan occurrences. They need the support of outsiders. The paradox is that at a time when populist leaders are hunkering down behind protectionist walls, corporates are decoupling their supply chains and nationalism has become the byword of global geopolitics, Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the importance of collaboration and partnerships. It has compelled even the most nativist of politicians to accept that the fight against this virus can only succeed if talent and IP are free-flowing and fungible, the distribution chain is linked and seamless (imagine the logistic hurdles of trying to vaccinate billions in the absence of such a link), and the wedge dividing the world is loosened.

Two, success in managing such a crisis depends on disentangling policy formulation from policy implementation. The two are, no doubt, connected, but they must be looked at through different lens. Policy formulation requires an understanding of the nature of the problem, the development of options, the risks associated with each option, and then a decision on the preferred pathway. Policy implementation, on the other hand, must get into the weeds. It requires a comprehension of the local context, the evaluation of the capacity to deliver, the identification of the obstacles, and the steps needed to remove them. Given the diversity of India, a policy formulated in Delhi will seldom be fit for purpose for implementation across the country. At most, it can provide a framework for local leaders to use in crafting a contextualised implementation plan.

The past few months have shown that those leaders empowered to implement policy without hindrance were relatively more successful than those shackled by the distraction of intrusive bureaucratic oversight, political pressures to meet targets regards testing, availability of beds, dispensation of PPEs, etc, and who were insensitive to local factors.

I was, for a brief period, in the IAS. But it was long enough to give me an insight into the role of the ‘gifted generalist’ and the enormous value they bring to public policy. I use the word ‘generalist’ judiciously. It is not to suggest civil servants do not have professional qualifications. In fact, an increasing number are doctors, lawyers, scientists, accountants and engineers. It is merely to make the point that, during the course of their career, civil servants are seldom required to draw on their professional expertise and so, to that extent, they can be regarded as ‘generalists’.
I was also, for a longer period, with a MNC energy company where the majority of my colleagues could be categorised as ‘talented specialists’. People who spent most of their working life focused on their particular domain of expertise. What struck me was the transformational public policy impact of their work. The reduction in the cost of batteries and solar panels that have today enhanced the likelihood of a decarbonised and clean energy future and which owes much to the work of these specialists is a case in point.

I share personal reflections because I believe public policy platforms should now be built on the pillars of institutionalised collaboration between the ‘gifted generalist’ and the ‘talented specialist’.

The notion of lateral entrants into the realm of public policy is not original. It is part of the fabric of governance in many countries. In India, however, whilst there are high-profile cases of lateral entrants who have left their imprint on public policy, the process has foundered on the rock of vested interests and bureaucratic inertia. Most lateral entrants have operated on the sidelines of policy. These systemic blockers are known and they are not easy to overcome. A suggestion, therefore, around this subject will only acquire traction if it is incremental and falls within the existing framework of policy formulation.

With this caveat in mind but in the conviction that governments buffeted by the ‘invisible’ ramifications of the disruptions triggered by technology, materialism and environmental imbalance and facing limitations of capacity and skill need a collaborative public policy model of governance, I would suggest that our Prime Minister contemplate creating policy councils for subjects that require a mix of administrative and political guidance, and multidisciplinary technical and specialist inputs. I have in mind specifically energy, environment, water, food and health. Each council should be chaired by a Cabinet-level personage. Membership should comprise a mix of civil servants and full-time domain experts. The purpose should be to formulate policy and to monitor its implementation by the line ministries. A parallel council with a similarly blended mix should be set up with individual states to take into account local factors and in the spirit of cooperative federalism.

The author is chairman & senior fellow, Brookings India

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