Address by Geraldine J Fraser-Moleketi on Public service and Covid-19: the future implications
Good evening and welcome to this live SAPAAM online lecture, on 19 May 2020. I would like to thank Dr John Molepo for extending the invitation of what, I believe, will part of a lecture series.
I am Geraldine J Fraser-Moleketi, Chair of the Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA), a technical committee of the Economic and Social Council, of the United Nations and the Chancellor of the Nelson Mandela University, amongst others.
The topic under discussion is “Public Service & COVID-19: the future implications.” My intention is not to provide answers but rather to start a dialogue or trigger an ongoing conversation/debate. I will draw on a few examples from Public Services across the world from developed and developing countries.
Crisis of humanity
As mentioned by many observers, and allow me to make reference to the Time magazine (not a progressive magazine), ‘the Covid-19 crisis is not just one of health and the economy, but also has other dimensions. Covid-19 is already challenging our assumptions about humanity, about society, about greed and selfishness, about the need to cooperate’.
The pandemic has also brought the issue of “Trust” to the centre of the general discourse. Trust or the lack thereof, ‘among humans, among groups, among countries, between citizens and governments, and faith in many of our assumptions about life, not only beliefs and humanity, but also knowledge itself’.
During this era of ‘fake news’ there is also an increasing caution among people about the information circulated. ‘We are beginning to doubt social media and many other previously trusted sources of information and knowledge, as we slowly realize that we are inundated with fake news, information and advice, not least by those we have become accustomed to trust, including family and friends’.
In part this is also informed by the realisation that in instances purported ‘solutions’ “come from those with agendas of their own, resulting in self-interested promotion of egos, influence or business opportunities, e.g., to sell medical supplies or some other really or purportedly needed ‘solutions’, items and services”.
Of importance for us in the discipline of Public Administration and Public Service is to consider that the Public Sector and Public Service will be like post COVID – 19. What will and should the service and life look like after COVID-19. As a country we are transitioning out of a lock down. What are the implications. Are there lessons from the response of the Public Service and more specifically essential service workers during this lock down period that we should draw on.
Truth be told, we will not and should not revert to ‘business as usual’ after this crisis. We should also draw on the maxim from the UN 2030 agenda, the all elusive Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ‘leave no one behind’ to achieve a more sustainable, equitable, inclusive and secure/peaceful future.
In the words of Victoria Camp, Transformation Manager, Local Government in Wales. “we are living through change of epic and transformative scale. Some organisations are managing. Some are not. And now, more than ever before, I believe the difference is one single factor — culture.” I would argue that we have an extraordinary moment in which to reclaim, ‘re-invent’ or reimagine the Public Service and Public Administration. Simply put, a moment to potentially “reclaim” Public Administration and Public Service but this requires all public servants to embrace and realise the culture of Batho Pele/ People First now more than ever.
The recognition of the role of government is expressed by Tim Paydos, from IBM when he says, “The COVID-19 pandemic touches every aspect of business, technology and society. And stable and effective government is at the heart of managing through this crisis. What we do now will have longer-term implications for the health and safety of our families, our citizens, the economy, and even global stability”.
On 4 April 2020, the Financial Times (UK) editorial column stated the following, “Radical reforms – reversing the prevailing policy of the last four decades – will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy on question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes will have to be in the mix.” So, capital through the Guardian editorial may be advocating for more redistribution, bigger government and even a basic income grant?
Professors Newland and Argyriades, had over several years worked on scholarship related to the importance of government and the state. In 2009 Prof Demetrios Argyriades argued that “allied to the implicit faith in the private sector capacity to drive the growth agenda, the concept of the ‘Shrinking State’ emerged as the critical element of the ‘Washington Consensus’, dominated the scene in the early nineties. The model still retained the era of importance as the century draws to its close…” “After three-and-a-half decades of reduction, deconstruction and de-institutionalization of government, the time has surely come to revisit and rethink our field and our profession (Kim and Argyriades, 2015: 14-17, 451-453; Dwivedi et al, 2007:121). No one size fits all countries, but all must in earnest address the causes of disarray, as well as look to the future in order to forestall globally emerging challenges and try to take advantage of looming opportunities. In spite of soaring markets, political unrest in several parts of the world, lingering social crises and a rampant capacity deficit undermining trust in governance make it abundantly clear that broad segments of our field need to be reconfigured. To avoid the mistakes of the past, to which we have referred, approaches and solutions applied in different countries need to be tailor-made. There are some commonalities, on the other hand which, as we have suggested, ought not to be overlooked. Restoring public trust and public service professionalism are such shared global “musts”, that ought to be high up on the priority order; world-wide”.
Who would have imagined a convergence in thinking by an editorial in the Financial Times and Prof Argyriades, but such is the humbling impact of COVID-19.
As Emannuele D’Achon (France), member of the UN CEPA, mentioned at the nineteenth session of CEPA, the “the low paid ‘street level bureacrats’ , health workers, garbage collectors, care workers and cleaners – these essential service workers – among others” have come to the foreground and “In recent weeks lists have been published all over the world …All of a sudden, it has become crystal clear who’s doing the truly important work in care and in education, in public transit and in grocery stores.” (Charles Lewing, GovLoop contributor.)
The use of technology in public services has surged. What has always been considered at change that would take decades before adoption has been implemented in weeks. The adoption of homeschooling and the use of technology to link to educators and fellow pupils and students. “Many parents would have never known that they prefer online homework or partial homeschooling for their children, had it not been for COVID 19. Many universities are seeing a change in their customers’ needs as well. This will force massive changes as more students will now forgo expensive room and board for online learning. Once companies sort out their respective remote work HR policies, it will still not make financial sense to deny employees the option to work from home”.(Charles Lewing)
But there is a reminder that we should leave no-one behind:
Education civil society organisations and social movements, in South Africa, appealed to the Department of Basic Education to focus its interventions on learners who are least likely to receive support outside of government.
“The disruption to schooling has worsened pre-existing inequalities in our education system and our society. While some schools have been able to provide learners with printed learning materials, online resources and virtual lessons, other learners and caregivers are without any resources or support.
Social inequalities are exacerbating education inequalities. Many learners lack data or access to devices to support online learning and access to electricity remains a problem. In some cases learners do not have a home environment conducive to learning and households are struggling to put food on the table”. This is a reminder that COVID-19 may present opportunity but will also have devastating consequences beyond health if governments do not intervene decisively and sustainably.
As argued by Lewing, COVID-19 is showing employees and management alike that daily in-person meetings can be substituted by a few emails.
The public sector will be changed by the workplace innovation spawned by the virus who would have imagined.
“Employees will want to forego the traditional commute and the 8a-5p workday, as remote work becomes a reality. The general public will want to forgo standing in line at city hall to pay a water bill, when a few clicks on the entity’s website will accomplish the same task. Council meetings will be held online via web media such as Zoom or GO TO meeting. All actions in the minutes will be recorded in real-time with extreme transparency”.
Lewing further argues that, “The public sector will also have to become social media savvy so that constituents can be updated in real-time as well, as Twitter and Facebook replace the marquee on Main Street”.
Accenture in a recent article observed that “The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented challenge. It threatens our health, livelihood and peace of mind—our very way of life. Both the public and private sectors have important leadership roles in developing a response. Citizens and businesses expect government to provide guidance they can trust, services that meet their needs and financial security. Public sector and private sector employees want leadership that stays the course, provides clear direction on a path forward and a working environment that ensures their safety.
These interests are common in communities around the globe. They represent ways that organizations are already joining together on what must be done. It is critical to look both at the immediate response toward recovery and preparations for future scenarios”.
So, I would like to conclude with an example from the South, specifically Kerala State in India. An article in The Guardian of 14 May, 2020 titles something along the line “… COVID slayer…” in a feature mentions that on 20 January 2020, Min KK Shailaja, federal minister of Health, Kerala state, India, phoned one of her medically trained deputies. “She had read online about a dangerous new virus spreading in China. “Will it come to us?” she asked. “Definitely, Madam,” he replied. And so the health minister of the Indian state of Kerala began her preparations…. Three days after reading about the new virus in China, and before Kerala had its first case of Covid-19, Shailaja held the first meeting of her rapid response team. The next day, 24 January, the team set up a control room and instructed the medical officers in Kerala’s 14 districts to do the same at their level. By the time the first case arrived, on 27 January, via a plane from Wuhan, the state had already adopted the World Health Organization’s protocol of test, trace, isolate and support.” Minister Shailaja had experience with an earlier outbreak of an even deadlier viral disease, Nipah in 2018. This prepared her “…for Covid-19, she says, because it taught her that a highly contagious disease for which there is no treatment or vaccine should be taken seriously”. The District model is working effectively at multiple levels.
We have seen Public servants especially essential workers play amazing roles during this pandemic whilst we have also seen major chasms in service delivery and the quality of of services.
In the voices shared in this paper I trust that the principles of effectiveness, competence; sound policy making; collaboration; accountability; integrity; transparency; independent oversight; inclusiveness; leaving no one behind; non-discrimination; participation; subsidiarity and intergenerational equity was evident.
With sound leadership, trust in government, competence and sound public policy and the importance of ‘whole of government’ and “whole of society’ responses cannot be over-emphasised this could well be the catalytic for the convergence in the attainment of the SDGs and overcoming COVID -19. so, we are forward looking whilst handling the present and social compacting is key. Government is back!