The COVID-19 pandemic has posed major challenges to cities and national governments, to our doctors and schools, to our economy and all our citizens. The challenge is of such magnitude that it is understandable if we forget to pause and ask ourselves: “How should we go on from here?” The new Government of the Republic of Serbia has been formed, which is why now is perhaps the right moment for us to think about how public affairs should be managed in the future.
The immediate damage caused by this virus – a great number of deaths and the expenditures incurred in the public health care system – may turn out to constitute but a small part of the overall negative economic and social consequences of the pandemic, as pointed out by the UN and the UNDP in Serbia in our recent report on the impact of Covid-19 in Serbia. That is why, following this stress trial of our system of public administration and public services, it is necessary to prepare for a new kind of public governance during the times of global uncertainty.
The report showed that Serbia lacked a more integrated approach across Governing institutions at both central and local levels, and efficiency in redistributing resources in line with changing needs, as well as the ability to anticipate possible crisis outcomes and adapt accordingly. While local institutions responded quickly and played a key role in "putting a fire out", they often lacked relevant data for informed decision making. In parallel, at the local level, CSOs, diaspora and volunteers actively responded to those in need, but were not included in formal local decision-making.
The question is: “Can we do better in the future?”
This crisis may also be viewed as an opportunity for better management of public affairs. If we want to succeed in this, we must be prepared to change the way we work in the public sector and to develop our institutions in a different way. What would that look like?
Similar to the organs of the human body needing oxygen, public institutions should be well "saturated" with feedback coming from citizens, the private sector and the community, which should be used in the process of decision-making. The current approach implies that the central level of government determines in advance the goals and the way in which they are to be achieved, and the lower levels of government only task is to implement the "big plan".
A modern system of public administration should be a process in which lower levels of government receive information about the objectives to be met, while the way to reach them depends on each individual link in the chain of public administration, and the available resources. All the while, the process needs to be transparent, inclusive and democratic.
That is how the platform-based approach to governance works, accompanied by a strong reliance on digitalization, which should enable all public services to be interconnected in the implementation of public policies, and for public administration employees to acquire new knowledge and skills.
Take for example planning for a possible crisis, such as the event of a large flashflood. Planning should start with considering all available societal resources that could be used to overcome the crisis, whether they are in the public, private or civil sector. For example, it is necessary to collect information on what quantity and type of mechanization private companies in the municipality or city own, which CSOs work with vulnerable groups in the field, which media are relevant and whether there are active radio amateurs.
In addition to data on all available resources, platform-based management implies the establishment of continuous communication and cooperation with relevant actors even before the crisis happens. And when a catastrophe occurs, like the great floods of 2014 in Serbia, all actors are activated and all resources for quick and efficient action are included in order to limit damages, timely and accurately inform the population and save the lives of the most endangered members of the community.
Are we ready to implement this approach within the framework of our strategy for recovering from the ongoing health crisis? And what is necessary for it to bring results?
A new approach to creating public policies
The response to the COVID-19 crisis and the recovery from the harm that it has already caused, and will undoubtedly continue to cause in the foreseeable future, must be based on a systemic approach, and created through a democratic process. This presumes an open dialogue featuring the participation of all the stakeholders, as well as the willingness of public institutions to continually learn and improve their work, both during the phase of preparing and the phase of implementing public policies.
Currently, it is customary to publish the text of a draft law after it has been prepared by the ministry in charge of it, and after gathering the opinions that the stakeholders are to submit within the stipulated deadline. During this process, the feedback is rarely provided on which suggestions have been accepted or rejected, and why. What would be better is to start with publishing information on the intention to develop legal regulations with a view to regulate a particular area of activity, while maintaining an open invitation to public to engage throughout the procedure.
Such an approach is based on linking and sharing the organisational and management capacities across institutions and sectors, including the academic community and private companies, quickly trying out new solutions and using alternative infrastructures.
Thus, for example, when it comes to providing a response to the pandemic-induced crisis, the private health care system segment could participate by allowing the use of its resources such as call centres for providing information to citizens about protective measures.
What is also needed is an all-encompassing strategy for working with data and a clearly defined framework for monitoring the effects of public policies. That is important in order to, on the one hand, ensure the desired impact in the long term, and on the other, to be able to monitor “live” the validity of the activities planned long time ago.
It is particularly important to also use the alternative sources of information, apart from the data contained in official records, to be able to grasp the emerging societal trends society faster. The UNDP Accelerator Lab has reviewed, for example, the use of LinkedIn, Google Trends and other alternative sources of data for monitoring population migration trends within the framework of activities tackling depopulation.
In parallel, it is necessary to strengthen the analytical capacities of administrative bodies crucial for providing responses to emergency situations, so that they can understand the short-term and long-term effects of public policies and make informed and timely recommendations for improvements.
Finally, it is necessary to use, on a regular basis, models for predicting possible scenarios, along with risk analysis, for the purpose of developing an early warning system, in case any of the unwanted scenarios do occur in reality.
Additionally, governments need to start using quick large-scale experiments more often in order to accelerate the learning process and make public policies more flexible, and thereby more resilient to changes. In that respect, the current pandemic has shown us that such experiments are possible, as we were able to see through the accelerated digitalisation of education. This has given us an example that should encourage innovations in other areas as well.
Dialogue and understanding
Good governance is based on the legitimacy of the key institutions of democracy, such as the national parliament and municipal and city assemblies. It is important to ensure that representative bodies have an active role in crisis situations such as a pandemic, so that they could perform their oversight function and control the executive branch of government.
Parliaments should provide an example of good practice when it comes to making compromises, as safe places open to debate. In order to be prepared to deal with states of emergency, representative bodies should further develop their digital resources, human, technical and procedural ones alike. Digital capacities should make it possible for them to continue their regular legislative and oversight activities under any circumstances, and to remain open for continual communication between parliament and assembly members and citizens. A good example of this are online public hearings and public debates, open to all, as is the introduction of the “e-Parliament” option in a number of municipalities and cities in Serbia, with the support of the Government of Switzerland.
Representative bodies must also develop their own analytical and research capacities and must have a permanent working body dealing with long-term planning, exceeding the four-year cycles, such as a parliamentary Committee for the Future. Among other things, such bodies would monitor the realisation of Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda, and would represent the interests of future generations, relying on examples of good international practices.
The pioneering role in this area was played by the Parliament of Finland as far back as 1993, whereas, for example, the South Korean Assembly established a similar body only in the year 2018. Since 2011, Wales has had the Commissioner for Sustainable Future, an independent institution which supports the government in promoting sustainable development by advising ministers, bringing together all stakeholders to develop solutions to complex issues that will have an impact on generations to come.
These bodies monitor long-term trends, especially the impact of industrial and technological progress on the development of a society. Also, the Parliament could urgently initiate the process of developing a National Development Plan, accompanied by a broad debate on probable, possible and desired futures.
Innovations and digitalisation
For a good public administration, it is necessary to have people with a broad range of competencies, wherein digital skills occupy an important place. Governance-related and other administrative procedures should develop in such a way that they are digital by design and developed bearing in mind the need of end users, such as citizens, the private sector and other stakeholders. Apart from developing new digital services, it is necessary to digitalise the existing services without merely translating the currently existing “analogue” processes into digital surroundings but following the same guidelines as for the new services.
When it comes to staff, there should be a better balance of the profiles of the managerial staff in the administration, increasing the proportion of those with academic and practical experience in mathematics, engineering, technology and science (STEM), and encouraging successful individuals from the realm of creative industries and the art domain to recognise their potential for working in the public administration.
Platform-based Governance in Practice
The COVID-19 pandemic in Serbia has pointed to the dramatic differences in the capacity of cities and municipalities when it comes to providing a quick and timely response to the crisis. This shows us that it is necessary to improve the mechanism of data exchange and coordination between institutions at different levels of governance.
Relying on the platform concept could help deal with the local contagion hotspot during the health crisis. For example, if a local health care centre or municipality lacks the required human, organisational or management capacities, a part of the capacities of one local government could be transferred, in an organised manner, to another local government until the local crisis is resolved (alternatively, the transfer could be from the national to the local level).
This approach enables a synergy between the central authority of power, which occupies a formal position within the system but has a narrowed field of information, and locally distributed resources, practical knowledge and experience.
One of the most important tasks is to quickly recognise the new categories of vulnerable population, created by unforeseen situations. As the UN/UNDP Socio Economic Impact Assessment on the COVID-19 pandemic in Serbia showed, among those who could help are civil society organisations operating in the field and continually maintaining direct contact with the endangered groups that may not be adequately covered by the system of social assistance and welfare services.
Joint planning, preparation of different scenarios and continual training for possible emergencies are the necessary elements of the new system. Through the digitalisation of its work, the Parliament would be able to work without obstructions under any circumstances, and through its continual contact with citizens it would always reaffirm its legitimacy as a representative body and maintain a high level of trust. Digitalisation of the administration, along with the introduction of staff profiles different from those traditionally present, is the base of the entire process, which, on the whole, brings a new quality and a new way of governing.
The platform-based approach to governance enables the use of the capacities of society as a whole, the academic community, the private sector and civil society organisations in the preparation and analysis of public policies. Such a system, based on widespread but well-linked capacities, is flexible, similar to a large number of solar panels on rooftops linked into unified electricity grids, and energy sharing in keeping with the periods of exposure to sunlight and the needs.