Coordinating pandemic responses from the center of government: Why country context matters

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Working together to defeat COVID-19 Working together to defeat COVID-19

Last week, we looked at four basic functions that would need to underpin a successful government response to the current COVID-19 pandemic which has claimed over a million lives and has wreaked economic havoc across the globe. These four functions include: policy-setting and decision making; operational coordination; information gathering and monitoring & evaluation; and external communication aimed at consensus building.

Our analysis from studying different governments’ COVID-19 policy and institutional responses suggests that many governments around the world have set up the first two functions focused on policy and operational coordination.  However, fewer tend to emphasize the latter two functions, linked to tracking data for evidence-based policy-making as well as systematic and proactive external communications.  

The actual tools that governments adopt for each of these four functions don’t need to be overly complex. The simpler the mechanism the better, especially in countries with less capacity. The larger the country, the higher the relative importance of coordinating across different levels of government (vertically) while ensuring the coordination across various ministries, departments, and agencies (horizontally).  For example, in a large low-capacity country, a weekly conference call between national and local leaders may do the trick, while a large high-capacity country may establish a standing coordinating body that involves both national institutions and their local organs.

Unlike country size and capacity, some context factors that are relevant for the success of government coordination at the center can change in response to how the government handles the spread of the virus. These include government’s credibility and legitimacy, which are related to trust in government.  In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s government began as a minority government, relying on a necessary coalition with the more populist NZ First, only to grow massively strong electorally due to its successful ‘strength with empathy’ approach to the pandemic.  

In countries where trust and legitimacy of the government are low, it is particularly important to employ center-of-government coordination mechanisms that emphasize transparency, data-driven response, and communication.  Taiwan is perhaps the best example, where a tech-savvy transparent approach both increased the credibility of the government and contributed to a successful pandemic response, creating a virtuous cycle that many struggling governments so desperately seek.

In conclusion, a word of caution: the center of government may not be best positioned to make all decisions in a crisis. In Australia, the decision by Victoria to contract out hotel quarantine security became an Achilles heel of their approach, but conjecture remains about who made that decision. While coordination of disparate agencies is best driven from the center of government, operational and specialist agencies should be empowered to make the decisions that they have expertise in.   

The apex of the national government should attempt to forge a national consensus about a unified approach early on in the crisis, as it only gets more difficult with rising economic costs and the pandemic fatigue.

For more analysis relying both on the lessons from the center-of-government literature as well as on the emerging data reported by the World Bank Governance staff around the world, see a recently published World Bank working paper.


Jana Kunicova

Lead Public Sector Specialist

Jim Brumby

Senior Adviser, Governance

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