What are key features of a resilient bureaucracy?

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Graphic by World Bank Graphic by World Bank

Bureaucratic structures are often rigid, not lending themselves well to adaptation. But public administrations around the world are now under intense pressure to be flexible, as they work to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and mitigate its socioeconomic and health impacts. After the peak of the pandemic subsides, governments will need to build resilience to deal with the potential of future outbreaks.  Below are five key features of organizational resilience. 

1.    Adaptive capacity 

Country experiences with past epidemics such as Ebola underline the importance of disaster preparedness and adaptive responses to the situation on the ground. Resilient organizations proactively plan for a wide variety of emergencies yet maintain the adaptive organizational capacity to shift course quickly based on evolving needs. In this case, scenario planning and predictive analytics are useful exercises. Building in “redundancy,” or excess capacity and back-up systems, can help protect core functions of government in times of crisis. Business continuity planning, which includes an in-depth assessment of processes, procedures and staffing, is also useful to identify essential and non-essential functions and assess capabilities, resources, and available infrastructure in advance. This type of analysis can identify potential points of failure and the best way to shift resources to address potential performance gaps. It can also help governments adapt to different working modalities such as home-based work, and authorize remote access to key information systems. 

2.    Supportive legal foundations

One of the biggest challenges to building organizational resilience is to develop formal legal frameworks—legal principles, laws, and regulatory mechanisms—that allow enough flexibility and provide the necessary clarity of rules within which government agencies can operate. A clear and logical sequence in implementation of laws, depending on the development of a crisis, can allow for mid-course adaptation and agile shifts in lines of authority, thereby creating appropriate protocols for situational response. 

3.    Timely, accurate and accessible data

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, weak systems and limited access to real-time information clouded situational awareness, impeded effective decision-making, and stymied government response. Investments in robust information systems and digital technologies are building blocks of organizational resilience during crises.  Liberia’s mobile app mHero, which connected the government directly with frontline health workers, helped strengthen real-time information sharing across key actors, in turn strengthening government decision making and responsiveness.

4.    Devolved but clear decision making authority

Flatter organizational structures, with devolved but clear decision making authority, can promote resilience and an enabling environment for innovation and strategic action. As Nigeria’s experience shows, flexibility and adaptation can exist even within rigid bureaucratic cultures. When capable mid-level managers had access to real-time data and were authorized to take quick decisions during the Ebola outbreak, they were able to catalyze a more agile emergency response with minimal bureaucratic delays. Ensuring that accountability lines are clear will support a broad continuum of preparedness and an integrated approach to a crisis. Contingency arrangements for replacing key decision making personnel in the event of illness or an emergency may also need to be considered. 
5.    Strong coordination

International experience with disasters highlights the importance of robust government coordination mechanisms, both vertical and horizontal.  While coordination structures vary from one country to the next, what matters most is their effectiveness in allowing government actors to align priorities, implement joint responses, support one another, and foster day-to-day information sharing. In Korea, specific Subnational Centers for Pandemic Countermeasures were established in local governments as a response to COVID-19, enabling delivery of containment measures and helping coordinate local measures with the central authorities. Some of the most successful cases of multi-agency cooperation include consensus-building approaches at the local level which ensure broad participation by stakeholders who are directly affected by a disaster. 

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


Lida Bteddini

Senior Public Sector Specialist

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