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Success vs failure: how can we evaluate government responses to COVID?

As the biggest challenge the world has faced in decades, governments and public sector organisations have been working tirelessly in the fight against COVID-19 and its impact on society and the global economy.

But of course, there is – and will continue to be – much debate around how governments across the world have responded to the crisis.

Speaking in response to a recent petition for a public inquiry into the decisions made by the UK Government in preventing the spread of the virus, and how this was balanced with other priorities, the Government explained that it is currently too early to objectively evaluate their response.

“The Government has said consistently that there will be a moment to look back and learn lessons from our response to this unprecedented pandemic. The Prime Minister also confirmed this will mean an independent inquiry at the appropriate time…The important thing – the right thing – is not to lose focus but to continue to respond to the current dynamic and developing situation and on the important progress we are making.”1

There is no doubt that the global response to the pandemic will continue to be scrutinised, and in some cases exemplified, for years to come. But how do we even begin to evaluate the handling of such a mammoth – and unprecedented – social and political challenge?

According to Dr Philip Whiteman, Director of the Online Masters of Public Administration (MPA) at the University of Birmingham, to understand if a policy has been successful, we must first define failure.

“In order to make judgements about whether a Government has got things right or wrong, we need a clear idea of what failure is and what it looks like.”

“Rather surprisingly, there has been little study until relatively recently about what policy and administrative failure actually is. However, we now draw on concepts and ideas from both business management and public policy failure to evaluate performance” says Dr Whiteman in a recent webinar, in which he examines the frameworks we can use to critically deconstruct the policy decisions made in the handling of the pandemic.

Political aspects of policy failure

When public policy fails, the ramifications we see within the political sphere can be used to help evaluate policy performance.

“Negative policy evaluation can undermine the credibility of a leader. This doesn’t necessarily have to be political in the ‘big P’ sense, we also see this within organisations” says Dr Whiteman.

“Other political aspects of policy failure can be seen through legislative, partisan and electoral changes, including the loss of parliamentary support in government, split party loyalties and effects on voter behaviour.”

So, why do policies fail?

The public policy lifecycle

The public policy lifecycle is the process by which policy is made, taking us from agenda setting through to policy formation, decision making, implementation and evaluation.

Looking at the public policy lifecycle can help us to evaluate government or agency performance at each stage of the policy-making process and help us to understand common policy failures.

For example, we may see overreaching governments agreeing to unattainable policy agendas that are too ambitious and impossible to implement, or organisations attempting to deal with problems without investigating problem causes or alternative policies.

In other cases, the government or civil service may fail to decide on a policy within a reasonable time frame, or fail to address implementation problems such as lack of relevant resources.

We also see ineffectual policy monitoring and a lack of feedback processes and structure – meaning that similar mistakes are made in the future.  This may be a particular issue in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, where policy had to be made quickly.

“In the pandemic, everything has been rushed and that may mean that decisions are not based on good evaluation. Obviously, vaccines are created through scientific evaluation, but what about policy decisions? It may be the case that evidence shows that the Government did evaluate effectively, but a lot of this material is still confidential and not publicly available” comments Dr Whiteman.

Principle agency problems can also be an issue in policy-making and may come to light when we evaluate the COVID-19 response.

“A principal agency problem is where the government instructs an agent, for example local government or [healthcare services] to deliver a solution, but the principal has no idea of that agents ability, information or resources to implement that policy – basically, there is an over expectation and that can lead to failure” explains Dr Whiteman.

Success criteria

To be able to evaluate success, we must have criteria. Evaluating policy can be achieved by looking at a range of objectives, including the impact on target groups, the significance of the policy, benefits vs costs, the level of innovation, jurisdictional comparisons and normative stance.

Significance – or importance to act – is key with regards to evaluating the pandemic response, as it was pertinent to act quickly.

“If we think back to March 2020 and the decision for the UK to lockdown, some scientists argue that we should have locked down earlier. In this case, the claim to failure on the part of the government was that we were too late” says Dr Whiteman.

“We will likely also see many jurisdictional comparisons, such as between Sweden’s approach and other countries, as to whether other governments succeeded or failed. Did somewhere else do this better? That will help inform our claim to success – or failure.”

As with any evaluation, there are also grey areas.

“We know that in our own workplaces, as practitioners, it is not always possible to claim success or failure in a clear sense” says Dr Whiteman.  

“We might find that ‘feel-good’ language is used, goals are not in the public domain or targets are moved. Policies can lay dormant – think about how many decisions are made by local government or parliament that never actually happen. Multiple goals raise complexities in themselves, because you might find that some parts of that strategy are met and then others are not.”

The complexity of the COVID response will make objective policy evaluation a challenge. The proximity of a policy to public interest is also a factor – and is particularly key in relation to the pandemic.

“Failure is often determined by the media; if the media is interested in that policy area, that will often determine if a policy is a major failure or not,” highlights Dr Whiteman.

With a crisis and response as vast as COVID-19, meeting all success criteria is unrealistic. However, evaluation – even where it finds failure – is crucial for making better decisions in the future. The inquiry into the pandemic response will hopefully be enlightening in facilitating better public sector preparedness in the future.

“Was our response developed on strategy, or was it in response to chaotic management? I think in the future we need to think about whether we need to have a more strategic approach to dealing with such threats,” advises Dr Whiteman.

Studying for an Online Masters of Public Administration (MPA) will give you the insight and up-to-date skills you need to tackle public sector challenges, both now and in the future.

With modules on Public Management and Governance in a Changing World, Managing in a Political Environment, Leadership in Public Services and Public Policy Research Methods, the programme will ensure you have all the tools you need to lead positive, strategic change within the public sector.

The University of Birmingham also offers 8-week online short courses in Public Administration, allowing busy professionals to pick singular modules from the MPA course and quickly upskill in a specific area of public service.

For more information, please fill out our request for information form or contact a member of our Admissions Team on +44 (0)800 032 7101.

References

  1. UK GOVERNMENT (2020) Hold a Public Inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 crisis (Online) Available at: <https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/302576> [Accessed 24.02.21]