Public policy in the age of corona

This is the time to rethink the role of the state, especially in areas of public health and social insurance

The importance of the role of state and its actions becomes manifold during natural disasters, wars, and other large-scale socio-economic shocks. In modern times such actions and intents of the state and communities are called public policy.

Like many other countries, Pakistan is facing a critical moment in the fight against Corona (COVID 19) pandemic. The situation is still fluid. Instead of a policy prescription, I have tried to layout fundamental principles that Pakistan (and other countries) should follow now and in the times ahead.

First, one should realise that every solution to a problem creates new problems. There are always losers and gainers from a public policy intervention. The state machinery needs to continuously evaluate and rethink its actions.

Generally, political scholars suggest policy stability to instill confidence in the society. In current times, the policy response will be the key concept. The state will have to be alert to respond quickly and decisively to emerging situations.

The frequency of virtual meetings of the Council of Common Interests, the National Economic Council and the Federal and Provincial Cabinets should be increased to undertake key decisions without a delay.

Second, the coronavirus pandemic is going to affect labour productivity in the public sector in the near future. One possible intervention to offset this negative impact is to move quickly towards automation and e-governance for their internal working as well as interaction with citizens.

Social distancing forced people to switch to online meetings recently and I feel that such meetings were more productive than those involving physical travel. The governments often invite officials from far away for an hour or so for meetings for which they have to spend a day or two travelling.

It will be good to let people spend more time in their respective geographies, instead of asking them to travel long distances for short meetings. Metro buses in Pakistan still require a physical ticket. It is so easy to switch such payments to cell phones and attestation through bar codes, etc. Many such government services need to be shifted online.

Third, the government departments need to focus on improving their communication strategies. They should remain connected with policy stakeholders and the people at large through two-way communication channels.

Transparency in governmental actions, including public expenditures, will help reinforce people’s confidence in state’s actions. Video content in Urdu and regional languages should be produced to communicate with the masses.

The governments should also engage behavioural and communication professionals in making their messages more effective and goal-oriented. A song on precautions for coronavirus produced by a deputy commissioner has become very popular on the social media. It was a good effort and should be appreciated. This is also a manifestation of the important role being played by street-level bureaucracy, including civil administrators, doctors, nurses and sanitary workers.

Fourth, hierarchical and command models of governance can’t deal with complex problems we are facing now. It is time now to move towards network and collective governance.

Public officials need to realise that they need to work collectively with their colleagues in other departments as well as private sector and community organisations. At the federal level, the prime minister needs to forget his political rhetoric of corrupt opposition for a year or so. He should work together with all provincial governments. He needs to listen to the provinces and respond to them from his ‘big office’.

The government also needs to take price control measures. This might restrict a supply response from the private sector. The state needs to establish regular communication channels with markets to address the needs of various sectors and to help the private sector overcome information gaps.

We need to understand that complex crises like COVID 19 pandemic require a multi-disciplinary response. Scientists, social science scholars, policy practitioners, politicians and entrepreneurs need to work together to find innovative solutions.

In this critical time, we need to understand that complex crises like COVID-19 pandemic require a multi-disciplinary response. Scientists, social science scholars, policy practitioners, politicians and entrepreneurs need to work together to find innovative solutions.

Fifth, educational institutions need to gear up to play a more proactive role in supporting the government, private sector and the society to combat COVID 19. Higher Education Commission of Pakistan has recently announced research grants in this area.

The Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) has continuously been developing updates on COVID-19 since its outbreak in Pakistan. The universities also need to adopt the concept of “an engaging university”. I am part of a team designing a new MS in Business and Public Policy at Lahore University of Management Sciences to develop the next generation of policy makers and analysts.

We have incorporated the concept of a semester-long placement of students with a public sector organisation, community set-up or private sector. The idea is to engage students in helping organisations and communities to find innovative solutions. Universities also need to devise robust plans for community service by its faculty and students.

Sixth, effective local governments have the most important role in such a crisis. Unfortunately, Pakistan does not have functioning, autonomous and capable local governments. A local government official thus has to look towards provincial and federal capital. Moving forward, there is a need to install professional, representative and empowered local governments.

Lastly and most importantly, now is the time to rethink the role of the state especially in the areas of public health and social insurance. We do need a thriving private sector and functioning markets, but this cannot be achieved without a thinking and capable state.

Over time, the focus has been on reducing the role of the state in social sectors. I think a better approach will be to enhance the capability of the state to play an effective role in health, education and delivery of basic services such as safe drinking water and garbage collection.

The state may collaborate with private or community organisations, but this can only be achieved if the state is capable. To fight the COVID pandemic and its aftermath, the state will have to aggressively build its human resource and institutional capabilities.

The writer is a teacher, entrepreneur, and economic/urban policy professional having education and interest in urban governance, entrepreneurship and economics. He tweets @navift

Public policy in the age of corona