Covid-19 is exposing holes in the government’s ability to plan for the futureby Jennifer Dixon / April 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
Plans are worthless but planning is everything, runs the well-worn quote from Dwight D Eisenhower. Covid-19 holds up a mirror to our ability to manage crises, be it by the government, public health authorities, the NHS and social care system or wider. The reflection is uncomfortable.
In the wake of Covid-19 there will be analysis of our response. How strong was emergency planning across the government? How resilient is the public health system, the NHS and social care? How strong was the information and analysis used to assess the extent and progress of the pandemic in real time—its damage to health and to the economy? What facts and cognitive biases influenced how fast we acted? How well placed were we to understand, direct and respond to public behaviour? How far was the government prepared for operating virtually with parliament shut down (and a PM in hospital), and was it able to make effective decisions?
“We were not quite prepared” was the honest admission by Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven this Easter. Clearly the results for every country will be mixed, with much to learn. But such enquiry should look wider than the pandemic. It should include how we prepare for a range of possibilities in the future—fast and slow burn threats and opportunities, both known and unknown. Not just infrastructure and security, but also climate change, new technology, the impact of the internet on our mental health and the shape of democracy, and the effects of long-run structural changes in the economy. And how all these interlink.
There are clues as to our current capacity to prepare. A 2015 report by the House of Commons Public Administration Committee “Leadership for the long term: Whitehall’s capacity to address future challenges” makes salutary reading. “There is no comprehensive understanding across government as a whole of the future risks and challenges facing the UK”; “The day-to-day too often crowds out preparation for the longer term and the unexpected. “There are isolated instances of systematic and imaginative analysis of trends, risks and possibilities around Whitehall.” And tellingly, “There is growing awareness of the need for co-ordination between horizon scanning and risk assessment, but not of the need for co-ordination between horizon scanning and public investment decisions.” Similar conclusions were made by predecessor parliamentary committees three, five and eight years…