In my work in the public sector over the last 20 years or more, one of the most familiar tropes is the exasperated crusade so many engage in to find better ways to collaborate within and across governments and between governments and the wider community. The trouble is that aspiration and hope seem to be inversely proportional to experience and performance. We want it but can’t ever seem to really deliver it. Except in a good crisis.
Work with pretty much any public sector leadership team after a flood or fire or similar natural cataclysm and the talk will be all admiration and yearning for the kind of instinctive collaboration that suddenly breaks out, at least so long as the emergency lasts. Then, the story will go, the status quo reasserts itself and that amazing sharing of data and expertise, of mutual accommodation of interests and of political mutuality even across party lines evaporates and we’re back to the old games.
So, is COVID19 big and brutal enough to buck that dispiriting trend?
We’re getting some signals, at least, that perhaps this time around an emergency of these unprecedented volatility and dire proportions might just scare us all onto a more or less permanent better trajectory.
If it’s both sensible and, it turns out, administratively possible to run a national cabinet and for the country to be run on a rare, but theoretically plausible combination of political leadership locked in mutual and respectful engagement with an expert, empathetic and competent (and therefore trusted) public service, backed by knowledge and expertise from beyond the public sector too, could that not become the new normal?
Do we do government and public work differently after all this – infused with humility, purpose, energy, new and creative mixes of expertise from institutions, business and community and ordinary life, diligent, accountable, rigorous and disciplined and with a renewed respect for the responsibilities we owe each other and to the public space on which we all, in the end, rely?
Or is that merely fantastical, reeking of an unhelpfully naïve romanticism?
I guess the good thing is this isn’t an academic discussion. The experiment from which the answers to these questions will emerge is happening whether we like it or not.
We will know soon enough. The answers can’t be other than empirical. I want to be optimistic. But I wonder…?
In different domains and contexts, we seem to be stuck in a conversation about the future and how we might “land” post COVID that swings between a set of familiar binary choices. In government and politics, apparently the choice is either Mrs Thatcher or Jeremy Corbyn with maybe some mushy Tony Blair in the muddled middle.
In other words, we either spruik the benefits of the neo-liberal, new public management framework of the past 40 years or advocate and even in some cases warmly predict the return of “socialism” or “big” government. Might the choice palette be more appetising than that sterile binary?
In education, a few weeks of learning online and shifting schools and universities onto virtual platforms has concluded, for some at least, that students are “bored” online and want to “get back into class”. Apparently, the notion that online learning, done well and with imagination and creativity, is no match for the classroom whose dominance as the prime and perhaps sole arena for learning (I know, silly right?) has been triumphantly reinforced by the forced exodus to the virtual learning-less wilderness.
In the new world of work, the experience of the past few weeks boils down to a simple choice between going back to the office or working from home permanently. Surely that’s not right?
Aren’t we entitled to aspire to something more imaginative, some new explorations of the best of both physical and virtual worlds cobbled together now with permission to find suitable patterns that fit the way you need and want to work, not the way someone who needs to feel as if they can control you needs you to work.
In the world of charities and NGOs, the assumption is that the only response to COVID is to keep the current structure and system going until such time as it can, in its entirety, “return to normal”, without much discussion about what “normal” it is we will or want to return to or whether all of those organisations are either necessary, valuable or effective.
The pattern seems to be the same. The piece that seems to be missing from the sometimes hyped advocacy for one of the two extreme positions is the ability to see in this “unfreezing” a chance to design something different, tailored to our needs and circumstances and not dictated by choices that reflect the world to which we might do well not to snap back so quickly.
Might not the most valuable thing that a period of this kind of intense disruption brings the invitation to do some fundamental rethinking (wouldn’t that be nice – think, again) starting with a willingness to question pretty much all of the answers we inevitably bring with us from the other side of the crisis and all of their consequent expectations and assumptions?
Maybe that’s too hard and unrealistic. Some of the hope for something new and better, beyond the binary options, drives some shift but is largely overwhelmed by the instincts of fear and familiarity which drives us back into the arms of “the way things were”.
Will the flowering of virtual coffees, soirees and informal conversations about big, meaty topics and issues of the day continue when we can all escape lockdown and “get back to normal”? Will the sometimes mildly performative outbursts of connection and care be sustained once we get back into our normal routines of work and more selfish engagement and activity?
Will the slightly surprised realization that “I’ve never felt so connected” that we’ve heard so often at the beginning of pretty much every Zoom or Hangout or Teams call turn back into stories about loneliness and disconnectedness?
Will the rediscovery of community which apparently is one of the unlooked for, but pleasantly surprising consequences of the pandemic, prove to be both transient and shallow?
Or will be blend these new modes of together and “only connect’’ blend into our lives the creative possibilities of clever and logistically simple digital means of communication and connection that will see some permanent, positive shifts to new rhythms and practices of staying in touch?