After Covid-19 (I): Either we swim together or we drown

Josep M. Vilalta - GUNi Director and Executive Secretary at ACUP
After Covid-19 (I): Either we swim together or we drown

Despite repeated warnings from the scientific community, some people are still viewing the Covid-19 crisis (not just a health and humanitarian crisis, but also an economic and social one) as a one-off, isolated, unpredictable event. This perspective, fuelled by certain politicians from here and abroad, needs to be met with exceptional, ad-hoc responses. Exceptional measures are required to address an extraordinary health crisis in order for a return to purported normality to be possible once it is all over.

We could also interpret the situation in a way that closely connects to the times we are living in. A huge-scale crisis happening at a historical moment of immense complexity on a global scale: a genuine change of era. And one that will, of course, have substantial, long-term effects on society, the economy, and even on the cultural values ​​and representations of our world at the beginning of the 21st century. With this in mind, we need to ask what effects this monumental social upheaval will have on ‘public’ affairs and their management, and on common policy. Will the coronavirus crisis really have a substantial effect on public policy and management? Will it do so as just one further phase of a historical process that we can analyse and interpret? My answers to both questions are affirmative, despite acknowledging that our capacity for analysis is limited and too close to the events. In future articles I would like to share with you, the readers, specific and more detailed aspects and angles. Today, however, I telegraphically note seven general effects that the crisis will have, in my opinion, on the political and public management of our societies.

  1. Public matters (the common, the management of public affairs) will again take a prominent role. Despite neoliberal currents, political disaffection, and the current crisis of democratic systems, the crisis has reasserted the need for a robust public space, the cornerstone of advanced societies; therefore, politics (understood as the joint management of the common good) and public management (which develops public policies and essential public services) are more than ever becoming key areas for progress and collective well-being.
  2. The greater importance attached to public affairs and the economic and social crisis that we already have at the gates will require greater political intelligence in more mature and informed societies; at the same time, higher demands will be made of the management of public affairs: professionalism and competence, efficacy and efficiency. Beyond populist proclamations and messianic leaderships (which there will be), the people will demand common sense, political intelligence, and efficient management of public policies.
  3. In this context, knowledge becomes a critical vector for the governance of the common interest. The Covid-19 health crisis has shown us this. Expert knowledge to deal with complex problems. Science, technology and advanced public management at the service of social challenges, whether they are local or global. According to Daniel Innerarity, in his book The Democracy of Knowledge (2011) “the problems that mankind faces today require a major mobilisation of knowledge. If we want to solve these problems, we must be able to generate a great deal of knowledge, which requires forms of organisation and cooperation for which we are not yet sufficiently prepared. (…) The issues that are elucidated in the field of science are also matters of public concern”; and “The main problems in a democracy are less problems of political will than cognitive failures that we must solve with a better knowledge of the complex realities that we govern” .
  4. In close interrelation with the previous points, public policies and the management of public affairs will require new values ​​and a greater capacity for response, as well as for anticipation and foresight. Once again, the crisis we are experiencing in our own skin is exemplifying this. We continue to work with outdated vestiges of a historical period that is no longer ours: aging, slow and reactive bureaucracies, outdated information systems, absurdly inoperative hierarchies, introspective organisations and professionals who only answer to each other without properly serving the people and the common good. Manuel Castells referred to this a few days ago in an article on the “De-bureaucratized Welfare State”. We need to look very closely (decisively and steering well clear of pure political and public marketing) at public ethics, integrity, transparency in political management, accountability and policy evaluation. We must humanise public management, make it a reality in the daily routines of thousands and thousands of professionals who, fed up with hollow speeches and proclamations, are demanding recognition and the tools to be able to work with dignity and efficacy.
  5. Despite a certain resurgence of nation-states (retreating, nationalistic and inward-looking), it is inevitable that the politics and management of collective affairs will be approached from increasingly more global and local spheres. The old aphorism of ‘thinking globally and acting locally’ will take on more strength and meaning. On the one hand, globalisation requires greater degrees of cooperation, solidarity and mediation on an international scale. Despite the current disdain of international institutions, we need more and better international and global governance. There is a long road ahead that is full of uncertainties and obstacles, but the shift towards globally shared agreements and governance is inevitable in several aspects, such as climate change, pandemics, international trade, and public rights and duties. It remains to be seen whether the European Union will be able to reinvent itself and build an ambitious, harmonious political framework, beyond the particular interests of its member states and their populist currents, fostering a new and fairer economic, social and environmental framework. On the other hand, the political management of local affairs (cities and regions) will become more relevant, for these are the places where politics and management become a reality and directly address the people’s needs.
  6. Advanced political management of public affairs recognises that the complexity that we were talking about earlier requires a high capacity to forge partnerships between institutions, organisations, businesses and civil society. The recognition, from humility, that no institution has all the tools or capabilities, and that reticular, joint efforts are therefore essential. The hierarchy of a bygone era (which we have also seen defending its role in the management of the state crisis, with somewhat thinly veiled ridiculousness) must give way to collaboration, which also means that public alliances will be more necessary than ever. Again according to Innerarity “The most complex systems cannot be governed from the hierarchical apex, which would mean a simplification that does not match the richness, initiative, and skill of its of its parts (…) A reticular world demands relational governance (…) The new governance aims for a form of coordination between political and social agents characterised by regulation, cooperation and horizontality”.
  7. Finally, how will all that we have mentioned impact political and public leadership? The complex society we foresee will require increasingly more competent, reliable leaders, with long-term visions, who collaborate, who recognise their own and others’ limitations, who know how to build alliances and give meaning to public policies and management. They will no doubt coexist alongside messianic and populist leaders, who believe in the idiocy of the people and who prescribe simple, immediate solutions to complex, often global, problems. We will see which of these styles prevails in the political arena of each country, and it will no doubt be a reflection of their degree of social maturity and political culture. 

As the then President of the European Commission José Manuel Durão Barroso said in 2008, ‘either we swim together or we drown together’. This is the fundamental issue that will dominate political and public affairs (both domestically and internationally) in the coming decades.  

Article originally published at ​Nació Digital – La lupa del sector públic (6th April 2020)


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