How public service surveys can support effective coronavirus response

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How public service surveys can support effective coronavirus response COVID19 public service survey

Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the 'Bureaucracy Lab', a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges to face society in generations. As the public sector takes the lead in responding to, mitigating, and helping resolve the crisis, we are reminded of the fundamental importance of an effective state. We need to ensure that government responses are not lacking when so much is at stake.

Governments’ responses to COVID-19 are the product of millions of public officials across the globe working to fight the impacts of the pandemic.  At the same time, millions of their colleagues are striving to continue the normal work of government, from maintaining social protection programs and ensuring public safety to monitoring water quality and building bridges. These officials face new challenges and novel constraints: many government workers now work from their homes; their normal ways of supporting and managing each other have been disrupted; and their manner of interacting with citizens has fundamentally shifted as social distancing becomes the new norm.

Now more than ever, countries need strong, agile, and well-linked public administrations — not only to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to continue routine and necessary state functions in rapidly shifting conditions. In moments of physical fragmentation, governments need data on how public officials are faring in discharging their duties and in which areas they are struggling. Much has been made of building data systems to monitor the impacts of the pandemic.  In parallel, we must build systems to monitor the strength of the public service.  The faster we can identify and resolve the challenges facing the world’s public officials, the faster they can get on with their jobs at this critical time.

Now is the time to initiate a high-frequency survey of public officials.  A survey will help to ensure effective communication of bottlenecks; foster best practices in government responses to COVID-19; and give public servants a voice at an uncertain time, when they are facing both the impact of the disease itself and the necessary measures of social distancing.  

The Bureaucracy Lab and its Global Survey of Public Servants consortium partners from Nottingham University, Stanford University, and University College London have put together suggestions for such a survey. It aims to regularly identify key constraints to the effective working of the public administration, facilitate communication and engagement between authorities and public officials, and solicit public officials’ views to address problems in this quickly changing environment. In parallel, the Bureaucracy Lab and its partners are offering their support to any government in implementing a survey via email, phone, SMS, or WhatsApp should such support be needed.  

As an example, governments may choose to implement a brief phone survey of all officials on a bi-weekly basis. The survey may ask the following questions to provide managers across the service with a continuous diagnostic of the challenges faced by their staff:

  1. What are the greatest challenges you face in implementing your team’s response to the coronavirus?
  2. What are the greatest challenges you currently face in implementing your team’s typical core tasks?
  3. What activity has been most successful in dealing with the challenges your team faces during the coronavirus crisis?
  4. What has been most difficult about interacting with your colleagues during the coronavirus crisis?
  5. Do you feel you have sufficient support for your mental health and general well-being during the coronavirus crisis?

While rich information is to be gained through open-ended responses, governments may also wish to implement questions with categorical responses. In such cases, they may choose to implement the following multiple choice questions, among others:

On a scale of 1-7, where 1 is “Strongly Disagree” and 7 is “Strongly Agree,” please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statements:

  1. The scope of demands facing my team has significantly shifted as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
  2. My team has been able to develop an effective strategy for coronavirus-related work during the coronavirus crisis.
  3. My team has been able to develop an effective strategy for core tasks during the coronavirus crisis.
  4. Resource constraints impede my team’s ability to undertake its core tasks during the coronavirus crisis.
  5. Resource constraints impede my team’s ability to respond effectively to the coronavirus crisis.

While the world invests in building the infrastructure to combat COVID-19, we must take seriously a complementary effort to monitor and support the strength of the public service.  For more information on our survey, and to discuss implementation support with the Bureaucracy Lab, please contact Patricia Paskov at

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