Public Administration and Covid-19

Editor: Priyanka Tibrewal
December 21, 2020

Public administration is a socially embedded process of relationships, dialogue, and action. The field of public administration straddles an academic component and action component, with each one significantly influencing the other. Both components seek to promote the welfare of the people in the larger context of a welfare state. Public administration, as the action arm, is situated firmly in the context of the state and therefore, strongly influenced by its nature and priorities. This has led to various re-inventions of public administration against the backdrop of social ferment and the nature of the state. For example, the new public administration movement rose in the 1960s in the face of American societal turmoil (John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1962, the USA lost the Vietnam war, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968). Another example is that of the new public management movement in the 1980s in the face of an inefficient state and creation of global interlinkages. This gives reason for one to believe that the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, being labelled the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1929, will cause major shifts in the nature of the state and by extension the nature of public administration.

Public administration as an academic discipline has traditionally responded to problems in Anglo-American societies. With the USA and Europe, being ravaged due to Covid-19, one can probably expect the following changes in the academic discipline of public administration.

Public Administration to Fix the Broken State

The financial stress being felt by most European countries, such as Italy, and the United States points to the bloated structures that are running huge deficits. The world’s largest economy, America’s budget deficit hit $3.1 trillion because of the coronavirus spending surge. The American state’s inability to rein in the crisis leading to massive costs to human lives points to a broken public administration system. The re-emergence of Neo-Taylorism in this context seems inevitable. The issue is to figure out how to ensure maximum governance with  minimum government expenditure.

Re-emergence of the State

The re-emergence of the state or dependence on the state was visible in most democracies, including India. The arrival of Covid-19 saw many private hospitals being ordered to operate and provide Covid-19 tests and treatment at affordable prices by the state. State control, however, was not limited to providing services; it also imposed strict restrictions on movement in order to curb the spread of the virus. On the other hand, the failure of the American state to control the spread of Covid-19 has exposed the hollowness of a minimal, corporate state. Ronald Reagan’s dictum, “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem,” has been challenged by Covid-19. The administration has since intervened to enforce social distancing norms and provide financial support to vulnerable citizens. Distributing Stimulus checks is one such attempt of the State. America’s Internal Revenue Service distributed stimulus checks up to $1200 to millions of Americans. This was an attempt to bring the economy back to life. The results of this experiment could very well herald the next big paradigm of the discipline. Success could lead to an intellectual consensus towards a proactive state that is reminiscent of the New Public Service of yore, with a focus on democratic governance. Failure could lead to a re-emergence of demand for a state that is more efficient and less fiscally profligate. Either way, the consensus would favour a state that has significant responsibility towards serving its citizens rather than trying to satisfy them as consumers.

Re-assertion of Sovereignty and the Associated Role of Bureaucracy

The de-globalization movement has been picking up steam since the mid-2010s. Covid-19 could be the final nail in the coffin for the globalization frenzy that began in the 1990s. This could lead to stronger national boundaries for people as well as the flow of data, Internet Protocol, etc. Global Governance Institutions like the World Trade Organization, World Health Organization, G20, etc. seem to have been rendered ineffective due to the de-globalization rhetoric and evolving geopolitical rivalries. The significance of WTO will further reduce with declining trends in global trade and the US-China trade war. The World Health Organization helped in evolving guidelines at the beginning of the pandemic, however, as time passed countries enacted their own operating procedures. The European experiment is also facing stress as member states choose to assert sovereignty rather than pooling their resources. As per European Council on Foreign Relations data, 29 percent of the respondents (grouped as “Do-It-Yourself”) believed that after the crisis, geopolitics will see greater self-dependence across nations.

This has major implications for the bureaucracy that would have to adapt to new situations. There would include – limits on bureaucratic power in negotiating with other countries; emergence of newer methods of negotiation and diplomacy at global platforms; and restructuring of processes that have so far been outsourced. The result would be a public administration which is greatly influenced by its domestic ecology and an altered politics-administration balance. It must then build capacity across institutions within this fundamentally altered ecology. How would the corridors of power change and the players inhabiting them respond? This will be an interesting development to observe during the approaching distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. The time ahead is truly interesting and one that will put the efficiency of public administration to test.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

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