Covid-19 caught every public authority by surprise. No one was prepared for the speed of its diffusion, the virulence of its impact, the “known unknowns” of its duration and the ethical conundrums raised by the debate over “lives” and “livelihoods”.
The initial response of the Indian authorities was swift and surgical — a national lockdown following a four-hour notice — but “thereafter, the policies were made on the hoof, understandable perhaps, given the nature of the raging virus, the spread of poor, at times misleading data and deepening public anxiety,” writes Vikram S Mehta, Chairman and Senior Fellow, Brookings India.
The results have been mixed. Some authorities were relatively successful, others clearly lost control.
So, what lessons does the Covid experience offer the practitioners of public policy?
With the benefit of six months’ hindsight, writes Mehta, he can discern two public policy related learnings and offer one suggestion.
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One, governments cannot manage such a crisis on their own. They do not have the tools — technical, scientific, even institutional — to tackle such invisible black swan occurrences. They need the support of outsiders.
“The paradox is that at a time when populist leaders are hunkering down behind protectionist walls, corporates are decoupling their supply chains and nationalism has become the byword of global geopolitics, Covid has brought into sharp focus the importance of collaboration and partnerships,” he writes.
Two, success in managing such a crisis depends on disentangling policy formulation from policy implementation. Policy formulation requires an understanding of the nature of the problem, the development of options, the risks associated with each option and then a decision on the preferred pathway. Policy implementation, on the other hand, must get into the weeds.
“Given India’s diversity, a policy framed in Delhi by the Centre will seldom be fit for implementation across the country,” he states.
“I would suggest that our PM contemplate creating policy councils for subjects that require a mix of administrative and political guidance and multidisciplinary technical and specialist inputs. A parallel council with a similarly blended mix should be set up with individual states to take into account local factors, and in the spirit of cooperative federalism,” he concludes.
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