How civil servants can prepare for the Covid decade

The challenges of the UK’s recovery from the pandemic will take years to sort out. A new report from the British Academy sets out some of the things policymakers need to think about to prepare
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By Adam Wright

30 Mar 2021

The UK is facing a ‘Covid decade’, with the social impacts from the pandemic being felt throughout the 2020s. This decade will be a turbulent one for policymaking, not just because of the difficult choices needing to be made in the face of uncertainty, but also because policy intervention will need to be extremely well-timed, well-targeted and supported at all levels in order to meet the challenges ahead – something that is likely to push the current mechanics of policymaking in the UK well beyond its existing limits.

History has shown that times of upheaval can be opportunities to reshape society, but to seize these opportunities in policy requires both vision, and for decisions to be made in a supportive and connected policy environment. Policymaking is rarely straightforward and, in recent years, policymakers have been even more constrained than usual by the all-encompassing complexity of politics and process surrounding Brexit, only to be hit with Covid-19 just as things had seemingly turned a corner. Even if our policymakers can muster the energy and drive needed to develop a powerful vision for economic and social recovery across the UK, a recent review of the long-term societal impacts of Covid by the British Academy concludes that enacting this vision in policy will require the navigation of complex structures and processes as well as cultures, norms and relationships.

Take education, for example, where the pandemic has caused massive upheaval both in loss of learning and the impact on the social development and mental wellbeing of children and young people. History has taught us that great leaps can be made in education where there is vision, such as in the expansion of secondary education as part of the development of the welfare state after the second world war. But this same example points to missed opportunities caused by the complexity and inconsistency of the policymaking process itself. Historians like Peter Mandler have cited internal cultures, insufficient experience, and the lack of joined-up decision-making between the Ministry of Education and Local Education Authorities as key reasons why the post-War system of secondary education failed to deliver equity and consistency.

Therefore, if we are going to tackle the consequences of something as huge as the past year’s lost access to education and the exacerbation of longstanding socioeconomic inequalities in educational attainment we must adopt an approach that is both sensitive to differentiated effects on communities and places while being more coordinated and supportive across different levels of governance and between different administrations. 

Covid-19 is not without precedent in this regard. Similar criticisms have also been raised about the governance of previous public health crises – such as HIV/AIDS and Swine Flu – and their societal impacts.

Much of the issue lies not in party politics, but in the complexity of accounting for challenging, cross-cutting factors like place, scale and time in developing and delivering policy. These factors can help policymakers to understand and respond to the fact that, while everyone has been affected by this crisis, the long-term impacts will vary considerably by who you are, where you live, how visible you are to decision makers, and how long you have had to face the acute effects of the pandemic. The British Academy's Shaping the Covid decade report tries to address this by linking up a set of strategic policy goals with an underlying framework for more effective policymaking.

The first two policy goals deal directly with the mechanics of policymaking, focusing on improving multi-level governance and the way administrations develop, share and communicate knowledge, data and information. The pandemic has highlighted the longstanding tensions in the relationships between localised and centralised levels of government administration. But the sense of shared purpose in the pandemic recovery provides a unique and powerful opportunity for these tensions to be confronted and hopefully resolved. To work properly, the flow of knowledge between different levels of government has to improve, with data and information  from localities feeding up, and wider strategy and context flowing down.

But, equally, we must improve the horizontal flows too: different bodies at the same level – such as different local councils, government departments, health trusts and local enterprise partnerships – must be able to learn from each other, share evidence and resources and provide lateral accountability to help improve policy responsiveness to diverse and changing local needs. The remaining policy goals – such as creating a more agile, responsive education and training system and empowering business, civil society and other organisations to collaborate with a shared sense of social purpose – indicate that public policy must work with people beyond government too.

This requires what the British Academy has called a policy environment that is CLEAR: Communicative, ensuring effective flows of information; Learning, strengthening the nexuses between evidence, policy and practice; Engaging, building transparency and trust through citizens’ active involvement; Adaptive, responding to change and uncertainty in a coordinated way; and Relational, fully embracing a joined-up approach and the interconnections between policy issues.

These are already principles that many in the civil service are striving to put into practice, but the impact of the pandemic and the size of the challenges we face in this Covid decade demand that policymakers redouble their efforts to improve the way we do policy, as this will undoubtedly improve policy itself.

Dr Adam Wright is Head of Public Policy at the British Academy.

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