Updated: May 15
Contribution signée Peter Hupe (KU Leuven)
How to act in an appropriate way?
That is the question driving public officials’ conduct. People bearing responsibilities in a context of democracy and the rule of law are faced with an action imperative; they always have to act. A crisis makes this question even more pertinent.
This is the case now with what has been labelled the corona crisis. Since a few months the Covid-19 virus has got a grip on the entire world. The virus’ outbreak in Wuhan triggered a ‘lockdown’ with a compelling and inescapable character. The spread of the virus across borders led to the global adoption of the Chinese approach to control the coronavirus. This adoption shows national variants of that approach, dependent on differences in institutional context and socio-cultural climate. Only in Sweden – far less densely populated than China – an alternative approach is pursued. At the moment of writing, Stockholm is the only capital on earth where people can be seen drinking beer on café terraces. Everywhere else the corona pandemic has induced an all-encompassing disruption of social life and a broadly felt fatality.
Nobody knows whether ultimately the more control-oriented Chinese approach focused on lockdown, as in its variants now globally adopted, will lead to a lower excess mortality than the liberal Swedish approach. And yet, political authorities and public officials have to act here and now. In the study of government, knowledge and insights on crisis management have been accumulated (Boin,‘t Hart, Stern and Sundelius 2016).The point is that in the Western world the situation of a lockdown is new. No government has experience with such a situation. The expertise of virologists, micro-biologists, epidemiologists and medical consultants working at intensive care units is highly valued. Also for these medical doctors however, when and how to retreat from a lockdown is a question they never had to address. This means that political-administrative decision-makers tend to lean heavily on medical know-how, while actually no one is an expert on managing a national lockdown; let alone on how to appropriately end such asituation.
The current phase of the corona crisis is perceived as a ‘next stage’, in the sense that in the statistics the curves of numbers of ill people taken in intensive care are flattening. The fact that daily still large numbers of people are dying because of the virus (and probably more, beyond the formal corona registrations) does not prevent that the lockdown exit strategy now has become an issue. Stakeholders from various sectors of society are knocking on the door of governments, making a case for getting relief in the problematic situation they are in. And indeed, apart from the guidelines to stay at home and to practice social distancing, the schools are closed, while hardly more than supermarkets and apothecaries have remained open. Public transport has been minimized; entire countries have become gated. On a global scale, the economic and societal disruption is massive.
Politics as weighing stakes
In this pre-exit situation every stakeholder sees his stake as the most important one. The consequences of a prolongation of the lockdown for his or her trade or branch are perceived as the most severe. ‘Who will be paying for my lost revenues?’ All these pleas are to be taken seriously–and they are. In countries like those in Europe the doors of government are opened, when individual shopkeepers, cultural organizations or others, as well as their representatives, make a case for help. It is there, in the layered locus of public administration, that public decision-making must and does take place.
It is in government and politics that the variety of values, stakes, facts and forms of advice, from different angles, come together and are taken into account. It is the political authorities and public officials who have been granted the legitimate power to practise the balancing act needed to reach justifiable trade-offs between the different values and various interests at stake. These authorities and officials also can be expected to have sufficient implementation capacity. And if not, they may mandate others, such as regional health officials or local governments, to make decisions as a delegated task. In all countries concerned a range of measures has been taken. Now also withdrawing these measures regards political-administrative decision-making.
Against this background no role of governing-by-proxy is aspired here; an advisor’s role is always limited. In overcoming the corona crisis, particularly modeling and scenarios can be helpful, certainly as results of coordinated action aimed at bundling interdisciplinary academic expertise. This being so, pursuing an effective strategy can be facilitated by a sensitivity to both the complexity of the task at hand and the de facto political nature of the decisions to be made. With an ethical component as inevitably inherent to any form of advice, the observations below are meant to trigger such sensitivity. They have been formulated from the background of knowledge and insights gained in the study of politics and government. Ending with some process requirements for implementation, this contribution aims to fulfil a reflective function, amidst the many inputs relevant for political-administrative decision-making about an appropriate lockdown exit strategy.
United focus on public health
In the public sphere the discussion about the contours of a lockdown exit strategy concentrates on contrasting the overall medical situation with the need ‘to give the economy a kick-start.’ The rationale is clear: almost all parts of the economy are severely hit by the crisis situation, particularly by the governmental measures to control the virus. Much creativity is being invested in projects aimed at compensating the financial losses. Even commercial ventures creating a win-situation can be observed. On the whole, however, particularly organizations in the private sector are facing financial-economic damage. Several business corporations have to close their doors forever, unless financial aid gives them relief. Fortunately, in all European countries, measures in this direction have been taken by the national governments concerned and recently also in konzertierte Aktion between the EU-member states.
The knocking on governments’ doors asking for aid and, at least, for a reduction of the social distancing and similar measures taken, has started now.While the medical statistics are becoming slightly less gloomy, given the current situation of lockdown, the appeal to government will go on for a long time. Political authorities will be weighing what reduction of measures is feasible when and how, in an ongoing process responding to claims from the various stakeholders on their doorstep.
This being so, while gradually and selectively relaxing them, it is deemed wise for the time being to maintain some, if not most, measures that have been taken now–coming down to working at home if possible, in a social distancing society. The lockdown frame has been adopted as induced by a broadly accepted medical view, on a world-scale expressed and propagated by institutions like the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, first priority–still–lies in the medical sphere, although going beyond creating more intensive care beds. That priority seems large scale testing and creating data sets of corona patients, in all sorts of variants. Hence, target group measures become possible. The objective is clear: evidence-based containment of the coronavirus, while at the same time allowing society gradually to get back to ‘normal’. In addition, the lockdown situation implies that all possible efforts must be made to develop an appropriate medicine against the virus. It goes without saying that international cooperation is due here. Until effective vaccination has become possible on a massive scale, the social distancing society seems the perspective–whether we like it or not.
Keeping vital occupations vital
In the study of government, nurses, teachers and others working in the ‘lower’ segments of the public and semi-public sector are known as street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 1980/2010). In fact they have a triple identity. First, they are front-office workers, fulfilling their tasks in direct interaction with citizens as patients, pupils and in other roles. Next, they are public servants–in one way or another they are publicly employed. Third, they have been educated and trained to act as professionals, proud to do their jobs (Hupe 2019: 489-491).
Until a month or so these professionals in public service generally were looked at as petits fonctionnaires (Crozier 1955) and, in many respects, treated likewise. Their work, of a serving nature, was seen as of a secondary order. This goes even more for people working in cleaning, waste processing, distribution and transport. As far as these persons are publicly employed, they were seen as easy objects for financial cuts, with the latter often resulting in less jobs and lower income.
And then came the coronavirus. All of a sudden, the ‘lower functionaries’ became public heroes. They are championed as having ‘vital occupations’ while involved in ‘crucial processes’. Standing in front of the building, people are clapping their hands for the nurses, medical consultants, assistants and all others working in hospitals and care centres. Prime-ministers make an appeal on television to support all these marvelous people. The world now seems to be saved by those very street-levelbureaucrats.
All this is wonderful, of course. Let some of this novel view on what used to be largely invisible tough jobs be conserved in the future. Right now already, the broad public support should get the form of taking care of the people in these vital occupations. Nurses and doctors are desperately in need of face masks, gloves and other protective material. It is shameful to see aggressive competition rather than cooperation here–between hospitals, regions and even countries. Another way the ‘helping professions’ can be aided to fulfill their helping tasks, is to ask what they need for the organization of their work. Because of the corona crisis, some people are out of work. At the same time, here the mobilization of additional hands is required. Most of the people working in hospitals, nursing homes and other care institutions have reached the point of exhaustion.They need time for recovery and recuperation.
Similar observations can be made for schools. They appear in this crisis as institutions more than ever crucial. Schools enable other people with vital occupations to do their work, in a role going beyond child minding. Most of all they show the essential functions they fulfil for raising youngsters in an appropriate educational environment. Teachers and school boards need material, like electronic equipment. Reflection on the post-corona lay out and infrastructure of school buildings and classrooms is desirable. Most of all, here as well, continued acknowledgement of what teachers mean for society is required.
In fact, such acknowledgment is in place also beyond health, care and education. Mayors and people working in municipal agencies like social services departments; the police–these and other public officials at the moment are trying to deal with the present situation as appropriately as possible, with an eye on the common good. While all are taking their roles in public service seriously, they deserve to get credit for that, also after the corona crisis.
Ensuring a realistic implementation
When a strategy has been formulated and decided upon, it is generally assumed that implementation will follow accordingly. The realization of the goal concerned–whatever it may be–is taken for granted. The phenomena hidden behind the term implementation do not seem very interesting. Hence, while being assumed, they can be neglected–unless and until signals occur that the goals have not been realized.
The study of public policy shows that this view on implementation as an assumed residual is misleading (Hill and Hupe 2014). Policy implementation is more than a technical matter. Most actors involved in policy processes–and certainly those with a responsibility in relation to the policy or strategy concerned–do their work with good intentions. The aggregated results of their actions, however, are not determined solely by the objectives stated.
Moreover, in a crisis a hierarchical reflex can be observed. People are inclined to look upward, asking guidance and clarity from political authorities and public officials in general. The latter, in turn, tend to adopt a straightforwardly top-down perspective when exercising control. Because the effectiveness of such control cannot be granted, implementation needs explicit attention.
As a rule of thumb the five Cs of realistic implementation can be useful here. They concern process requirements for implementation. Communication then means investing in conveying the message at hand. While vagueness creates freedom, particularly in a crisis, clarity is demanded. Then, given the hierarchical reflex mentioned above, guidelines will be accepted but also measures people may be less enthusiastic about. Building and using coalitions implies the need to create the willingness to share the general goal and to make joint efforts to realize it, enhancing the commitment and dedication of stakeholders. It goes without saying that citizens and corporations, but also co-governments, will comply with the strategy and actively support it sooner, when the necessary resources have been made available; capacity is involved here. And at the end of the day, all efforts made stand or fall with the professionalism demonstrated on the ground floor of government, as craftsmanship embedded in society.
Given the argument above, the threefold advice to political-administrative decision-makers for an appropriate lockdown exit strategy can be recapitulated as follows.
United focus on public health. With lockdown as the status quo, public health stays first priority when making, step-by-step, a politically justifiable weighing of other values and interests in relation to this priority. The sooner coordinated action enables large-scale testing and data collection, the sooner target group measures and ultimately vaccination can become a fact. The more progress is made in the medical realm (health), the more alternative stakes (economy) can be acknowledged in a gradual process of reducing lockdown measures. A positive public health prospect offers a perspective to make the social distancing society–reality for the time being–more bearable.
Keeping vital occupations vital. Taking their crucial role seriously means helping public service professionals and their counterparts in the private sector to fulfill their tasks. In relation to this, work is to be made of institutionalizing the political and social appreciation of their contribution, as now having become visible.
Ensuring a realistic implementation. Instead of taking the realization of goals for granted, giving explicit attention to the follow-up of decisions made, is worthwhile. A way to do this is adopting the five Cs of realistic implementation: communication, coalitions and commitment, capacity and craftsmanship.
This paper has been written as a contribution to a nation-wide and interdisciplinary advice of Belgian academics to the Exit Strategy Expert Group of the Belgian government. The initiative to that advice was taken by Yves Moreau (KU Leuven) and Olivier Servais (UCLouvain). Marleen Brans (academic expert on public policy), Michael Hill (academic expert on policy processes), Willem Hupe (economist), Jelger Jorritsma (econometrist), Nynke Jorritsma (public library professional), Peter van Keulen (micro-biologist), Pauline Klaver (psychologist and remedial teacher) and Olivier Servais (editor and academic expert on anthropology) are acknowledged for giving comments on a draft of this paper. They did so à titre personnel. Only the author is responsible for the content of the paper.
Boin, A., ‘t Hart, P., Stern, E. and Sundelius, B. (2016) The politics of crisis management: Public leadership under pressure (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crozier, M. (1955) Petits fonctionnaires au travail. Compte rendu d’une enquête sociologique effectuée dans une grande administration publique parisienne. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
Hill, M.J. and Hupe, P.L. (2014) Implementing public policy: An introduction to the study of operational governance (3rd ed.). London: Sage.
Hupe, P.L. (2019) The ground floor of government in context: An agenda for street-level bureaucracy research. In: Hupe, P.L. (ed.) Research handbook on street-level bureaucracy: The ground floor of government in context (Chapter 30; pp. 484-506). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
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