One of the stories of this pandemic runs something like this.
A microscopic bug released from an animal market in Wuhan has, in a matter of weeks, brought the world to its knees.
As a recent edition of The Economist had it, “planet closed.”
Melodrama, perhaps, and a great magazine cover, but not too far from what at least many of us feel.
But amid all the stürm und drang, a modicum of hope insists on springing.
Is it possible that, as a result of our capacity to pull out all the stops, come together for the common good and work like demons in the face of a huge, shared and scary enemy, we can make changes in so many different parts of our lives that will put us onto a permanently better trajectory?
I have been in conversations with NGOs, businesses large and small, government agencies and just ordinary people and their families all mesmerized by the amount of change we seem to have achieved in such a short space of time.
One CEO of a large, global NGO told me, describing some of the digital reforms and related operational, structural and leadership changes the organisation has recently made, “we’ve basically made changes in 3 weeks that would normally take 3 years.”
He explained that he had set up a small internal strategy team to think about which elements of the modified service delivery they had introduced in the past few weeks could be made permanent. The team has also been tasked with finding the longer-term organisational implications (for systems, for their staff people, even things like whether the organisation could reduce the number of rented premises permanently). It will explore sector-wide issues including difficult issues like consolidation and new financial models) in the context of rapidly changing broader social, cultural and economic changes.
The predictable conclusion of most of these conversations is a common question.
Should we expect these changes to stick? Is it possible that what has been achieved under intense pressure and often collective fear will be sustained once the common enemy is defeated? When the pressure’s off, will we find ourselves enjoying these changes as a “new normal”? Or will we witness a retreat to bad old habits and the soothing familiarity, no matter some its manifest shortcomings, of the “old normal”?
In other words, can we reap a serious and sustained “Covid19 dividend”?
What is a “Covid19 Dividend”?
A Covid Dividend is the value we will reap from the reforms, changes in behaviour and other innovations which were caused, prompted or dramatically accelerated by the COVID19 pandemic that deliver sustained improvements in the social, economic, environmental, institutional, personal and community dimensions of our lives.
It’s basically the unexpected but welcome bonus we get to enjoy as a result of a bunch of changes we’ve come to enjoy during the pandemic, which we would not have achieved without its intense demands and which are at risk of eroding once the external pressure is removed.
I’ll give you an example.
A State government human services agency has told some its funded peak organisations that it will extend their current funding limits from June this year to the end of December 2020. Basically, all the organisations have been granted 6 months of additional funding with no requirement to reapply or write complex and detailed “business case” justifications.
They have also been told that a series of reporting and other regulatory provisions with which normally these organisations would be expected to comply are being deferred or exempted.
So the question is if the world manages to keep turning, more or less, for the next 6 months without these provisions and processes in place because it will make life easier during the emergency, is there an argument for keeping the changes in place after the emergency is over?
In other words, if you can manage in the next 6 months without them, can you manage without them at all?
I have no idea whether these exemptions could be sustained over time without incurring considerable harm or costs. Maybe they are essential to the good order of the State and are only being lifted out of necessity.
Let’s say the jury is out on the specifics of that example, but it serves as a good illustration of the “divided” thesis.
What are some of the other areas of our lives in which Covid-driven change seems to have shifted us onto a potentially better path and which we could sustain when we “land”?
Here’s a few.
We’ve rediscovered the virtues of community and the essential role of connectedness to our human condition. As we have learned to be physically distant, we’ve tried out some new ways to be socially connected.
Zoom calls and Hangouts happen at the drop of a hat. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if, in our slightly manic desire not to drift apart, we aren’t slightly overdoing the “let’s do a Zoom call” reflex. People seem to me to be meeting more often and more intensely than I suspect they did pre-Covid.
Some of the new forms of connection are decidedly non-digital. Think of those pictures early in Italy’s shutdown of people singing and playing musical instruments on their apartment balconies.
When the emergency is over, will those Italians still congrergate on their balconies with a glass of wine and their musical instruments to while away some “together time”?
Will we sustain many of these habits born of the desire to cling together in fear, uncertainty and hope but which, when that external prompt recedes, might not seem as urgent or necessary?
Will we still be summoned to wonderfully entertaining and often very thoughtful virtual workshops, seminars, even soirees with a glass of wine and conversations one host aptly described as “warm and deep”?
I’m not sure.
In the world of politics and public governance, many have commented on the emergence of a more genuinely collaborative, more respectful and frankly humbler demeanour from many of our normally combative politicians.
All of a sudden, we have a National Cabinet (not perfect, it’s true and still fraught with the perennial contest between individual, tribal and collective or common good interests), supported by open displays of respect for expertise. Which is all good.
Certainly, much more productive than brusque barking of prime ministerial orders that Ministers are there to provide policy and direction and public servants are there to get the job done and do what they’re told.
Now, apparently, and in the face of the mixture of ignorance and fear from which much politics derives, public servants and (at its best) their public work tradition of deep expertise, an almost vocational obsession with the public good and the willingness to work long and hard to meet punishing deadlines, are back in favor and enjoying a brief summer of respect and recognition. Wonderful, and well overdue.
When the emergency recedes, can we expect that heady mix of collaboration, respect for collective intelligence and recognition of the value of public purpose to be sustained, perhaps even entrenched as the foundation for a new strategic approach to public policy leadership and expertise?
And, perhaps off the back of that new trajectory, perhaps we might see some practical engagement with big questions about the role, purpose, structure and talent – especially talent – for the public sector itself as a key institution in turbulent and perennially disrupted times?
Even as I write the words, there are sceptical voices in my head. Yeah right. Collaboration, collective intelligence and a new respect for, and proper investment in, public work and the public sector (not the same thing, by the way, but that’s for another time). We’ll see.
Education is another one.
I saw a headline recently from the principal of one of Sydney’s private high schools claiming that, after a couple of weeks of working online, the novelty had worn off for students. The sooner we can get them back to their classrooms and the way things were, the better it will be. “Nothing we are currently doing,”she suggested, “”is as good as what we were doing a few weeks ago.”
So apparently the best we’ve got as a response, in the world of learning and skills, to the greatest single disruption we’ve faced for 100 years is that it was all just fine a couple of weeks ago.
What about the creative potential of new technologies blended in clever new ways of teaching and learning, supported by new ways to lead learning and teaching, especially driven by the interests and instincts of young people themselves, to engage a roiling world of change and new ways of working and learning throughout life?
Couldn’t this be the perfect excuse to drive deeper into tougher questions about the nature and impact of the way we design and engage a learning life?
All of these examples raise the same question.
Do we have the courage, the nous and the generosity of collective endeavor to “bounce forward” to something new and better into which the tough conditions we’re in have propelled us?
Or do we “bounce back” and miss the opportunity to harvest the Covid Dividend?
“Wars are always dramatic accelerators of change. So are crises of any kind. Coronavirus could turn out to be just be a one-off blip, with normal service resuming once the worst of it is over. But it could prove to be a step change that’s used to accelerate changes that were long overdue.”
What to do
Every government, and perhaps any organisation and institution, should have a small team of people working to:
1. Identify the reforms and innovations that are being driven by the exigencies of the current strange and intensely unsettling conditions and work out which of them are worth sustaining and which are not
2. Determine how to define “worth sustaining”, especially identifying those breakthrough changes that have happened in areas where previously there had been resistance but about which there is widespread agreement they were (a) necessary, (b) overdue and (c) clearly adding value.
3. Clarify why it would be useful to sustain these unexpected, but welcome shifts in trajectory or performance, both in monetary terms but also in terms of the equally important outcomes like greater connectedness, a growing capacity for effective and practical collective intelligence for problem solving and contributions to trust and empathy.
Wouldn’t it be good if each Premier and the Prime Minister (and CEOs too in the private and nonprofit sectors) were able to declare, when this is over, a “Covid19 Dividend” in terms of the reforms and innovations the pandemic, and the hard work we’ve all put in to combating its spread and adjusting creatively to its constraints, have driven?
Some good and necessary changes are happening to the way we live, the way we work, the way we learn and the way we are governed.
Why don’t governments start right now to work out what those changes are worth to us as a community and as an economy – money saved, regulatory burdens lifted, new forms of connecting people and stronger, and more resilient institutions and communities – and work out how we should set about making sure their value is sustained once the difficult conditions from which they were wrought have changed?
I’d like to think the work has already started but, as in often the case with good public work, isn’t visible to the public eye.
I hope so.
And if it hasn’t, I hope these reflections might prompt a start.