The importance of competent government is perhaps the most important of the many painful lessons that are being learned during the pandemic. The significant variation in death rates across the globe illustrates there are many examples of governments responding well, less well, and disastrously. As the pandemic is ongoing and geography varies, care needs to be taken with evaluating success, but what is apparent is the importance of governmental institutions, particularly administrative institutions, that have the capacity and authority to do things properly.
This is particularly obvious in United States and the United Kingdom where populist politics has undermined traditional administrative institutions leaving them struggling to cope with the many different consequences of the pandemic. One of three reasons why Moody’s, the credit rating agency, downgraded the UK’s government rating on October 16, 2020 was a ‘weakening in the UK’s institutions and governance that Moody’s has observed in recent years’. The result can be seen in the completely foreseeable flip flops in public health advice, botches in test and trace regimes, a lack of personal protection equipment, illogical and ever-changing lockdown regimes, broken public health services, chaotic reorganising of education and examining, ineffective economic policies – the list goes on. Not only can a similar pattern also be seen in the US, but President Trump and state Governors catered to populist sentiments and opposed the mask mandate recommended by the medical professionals and scientists who were left in a depleted civil service.
Competence is not exactly a concept that gets the heart racing. To call someone competent is often faint praise. To be competent is not to be exciting. It is a word that has a whiff of staidness, even dullness about it. But it is essential for good government. As a collective action problem, COVID 19 needs a competent collective response. This is not an ideological statement but a factual one. Governments must be able to act competently – sensibly and effectively – if collective action problem are to be addressed and mitigated. Because the UK and US has failed this responsibility, populations are reeling and the loss of life from COVID 19 is shocking
Competent public administration is not a foregone conclusion; it requires institutions to be fostered that have the staff, expertise, resources, and legislative mandates to respond to problems. None of these things are monolithic. Take expertise. Expertise in public administration takes many different forms and public decision-making needs to integrate expert insights in different ways. Furthermore, the success of administrative institutions is dependent on the existence of a commitment to public administration doing its job well within an institutional, political and legal culture. That commitment must be both internal and external to public administration. In regard to the latter, political leadership really matters. As The Economist recently noted, ‘government failures are often the consequence of hasty ministers listening to civil servants too little, not too much’. Listening is not blindly following – but it is carefully understanding what is being said and understanding its implications. To do its job well, competent government, must also be meaningfully accountable.
Competent administration is not wishful thinking either. There are many examples of it in action. While Germany is currently seeing a rapid rise in cases, its responses across much of 2020 were competent indeed. Australia has shown both an ability for swift action as well as reflective accountability when mistakes about reducing the impact of the virus were made.
The real challenge is that it is easier for political leaders to mock and denigrate public administration than it is to understand and foster it. Michael Lewis’ 2018 book, The Fifth Risk, underscores this point well. In it he wrote ‘There might be no time in the history of the country when it was so interesting to know what was going on inside these bland federal office buildings—because there has been no time when those things might be done ineptly, or not done at all’. The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 demonstrates what happens when political leaders lack that interest, and the results are tragic.