Using empirical evidence to help build future governments post-coronavirus

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Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank

As we begin to ask what the future of government should look like post-COVID19, we take a look at some of the policies and adjustments that public administrations have implemented in response to the crisis and how they might inform future reform strategies.  

Each reform decision requires a potential trade-off as well as an empirically founded approach to reach an optimal balance.

1. Broadly trained and flexible workforces help strengthen resilience in public administrations but can limit public-sector efficiency.  Governments with a general pool of human resources or with access to temporary hiring schemes can more easily respond to crises by reallocating human resources across functions. For example, during the current crisis brought about by the global pandemic, governments have been able to maintain essential public services and strengthen capacity in high-demand areas by allowing temporary (re)assignments across the civil service

However, labour specialization is a common feature of productive organizations, and has been rapidly increasing over time. Developing a broad-based human-resource pool at the expense of specialized, task-specific skills risks a decline in public-sector productivity, particularly relative to the (increasingly specialized) private sector. Similarly, temporary and fixed hiring terms limit the incentives to build staff capacity and develop lifelong learning schemes, which are at the heart of building a productive workforce. Balancing these risks and opportunities will benefit from rigorous and frequent competency-needs assessments and competency-based recruitment and capacity-building strategies, as seen in India, the majority of EU member states, and across the OECD.

2. Mechanisms for budget flexibility allow speedy reallocation of resources (budget, labour, and equipment) in times of need, but create more opportunities for embezzlement of public funds. Rigid budgetary systems can prevent governments from optimally responding to public-service demands as they worry about slashing spending and reducing labour costs, rather than providing quality public services in times of great need.  

However, without effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms in place, governments risk being exposed to greater levels of corruption, as it becomes easier to siphon funds or allocate them to favoured venders. A recent blog post presents a set of lessons that can help treasuries manage this tricky balance. Frequent, high-quality data on the major productivity bottlenecks, de-facto management practices, attitudes, behaviours, and norms that exist within public administrations can help governments monitor the risks and implement reforms  accordingly.   

3. Strong information systems and monitoring data allow governments to rapidly identify new threats and evaluate the effectiveness of policy responses, but risk infringing citizen privacy concerns and reducing trust in public institutions. Real-time data on the rates of COVID-19 has allowed governments to track the spread of the disease, prepare accordingly, and assess the impacts of policy measures, leading to a rise in contact-tracing efforts by governments. However, such efforts can raise concerns over privacy.  

Without clear protocols and restrictions about how this data will be accessed, used and stored, and for how long, governments risk a breach of public trust, which can have detrimental economic and societal impacts in the longer term. Citizens and firms can become less likely to follow government advice and comply with government regulations. Finding the right balance will require keeping track of public attitudes towards governments and the strengths and weaknesses of existing government data systems and capacities, through regular surveys and quantitative and qualitative assessments.

4. Flexible organizational practices and remote working solutions allow governments to maintain service provision and respond to changing client needs, but risk the efficiency losses associated with structured management practices. Organizations with more “fluid” operations are able to shift resources and attention to new client demands and ways of working, which in some cases has been linked to superior organizational performance (Bhattacharya et al, 2005; Beltrán-Martín, 2008). 

These flexible management and organizational practices allow human resources to function from remote locations and to shift across activities and tasks as needed. However, such flexibility can also limit the extent to which organizations can implement structured management practices, such as those related to employee monitoring, target-setting, and performance incentives, which are strongly linked to productivity. Since we can rigorously measure the quality of different management practices within public administrations, we can use empirical evidence to help governments find the right set of management practices to achieve their organizational objectives.    

Optimally balancing all these risks and opportunities can be extremely difficult in practice. It will rely on collecting micro-level data on public organizations and officials and using this data for empirical analysis on the consequences of new policies, practices and administrative reforms. We call for an iterative and adaptive approach when designing resilient government bureaucracies.   


Ravi Somani

Economist (ETC), Bureaucracy Lab, World Bank

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