What Does the Covid-19 Pandemic Reveal about ‘Strategic’ Government and Welfare Policy?

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Stephen Sinclair. Click here to access the article.

Covid-19 will run like a geological seam through social policy analysis. Future historians will be able to tell at a glance whether some policy commentary was pre or post-pandemic. The covid emergency was a stress-test of government and welfare systems, and reveals a great deal about the ‘strategic approach’ to policy making which several countries (including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Scotland) have adopted. This articles uses interviews with local public officials and third sector representatives responsible for responding to the social and economic effects of covid in Scotland to understand what a ‘strategic’ approach to welfare policy involves and how it dealt with the challenges posed by the pandemic.

What is Strategic Government?

It might be assumed that all governments are ‘strategic’, and certainly all have strategies, as well as schemes and ruses. However, the term ‘strategic state’ describes a particular approach to making policy and running government. It is characterised firstly by what President George W.H. Bush called ‘the vision thing’: a strategic state pursues an explicit mission and co-ordinates actions to achieve this between different levels of government and across different sectors. 

However, strategy is not the same as instruction – a strategic government sets the direction of travel but does not hold the steering wheel; there is no central command and control system as used by some older models of state welfare. A strategic approach is an attempt to overcome ‘silo working’, where different parts of government and civil society focus on their own issues rather than collaborate. And this is considered necessary because, as the OECD explains, ‘complex or wicked policy challenges exceed the conventional structure and routine processes of government… responding to such policy challenges requires a strategic, cross-sectoral approach’.

The ‘Scottish Approach’ to Policy

The Scottish Government developed its strategic approach to policy in response to the recommendation of the Commission into the Future of Public Services that a more collaborative policy culture was required to deal with austerity. 

Strategic government as it operates in Scotland has four main characterises. First, a central vision, shared with stakeholders and articulated through interconnecting aims, policies and targets. The national purpose is inclusive economic growth. Secondly, a National Performance Framework (NPF) underpins this mission. The NPF specifies outcome targets and performance indictors to promote a ‘whole-of-society approach’ to national progress which extends beyond government. Thirdly, there is ‘consultative and cooperative style’ of policy-making and delivery characterised by ‘network governance and distributed leadership’, involving cross-sector and multi-level partnerships. Finally, there is the principle that policy should be ‘designed with and for people and communities’ – reflected in the Office of the Chief Designer, established to promote a Scottish Approach to Service Design involving communities as co-creators rather than the passive recipients of services.

Testing Strategy Under Pressure

To paraphrase a familiar military aphorism: no strategy survives its first engagement with the enemy. An unprecedented urgent global emergency is a daunting enemy for any strategy, and the covid pandemic tested the resilience of welfare systems across the world. It also revealed interesting things about two core aspects of strategic governance in Scotland – partnership working and the focus on outcomes.

Far from derailing a strategic approach, the pandemic prompted rapid innovations in local policy and practice and accelerated partnership working. As one third sector representative explained, ‘we have moved quickly during covid and we’ve done that because we’ve put risk aside and collaborated, and I think that’s a really important lesson’. This sentiment was echoed by a representative of those with direct experience of poverty: ‘it was the best partnership project I’ve ever been in… there was no bitching and it was brilliant for the sake of the people who needed it – the end beneficiary. And that is a good thing to say. It was really, really top notch’. 

Decision-making was de-layered and discretion devolved during the pandemic, and staff remarked on how refreshing it was to be empowered to act decisively in response to problems such as homeless. As one local official explained, policy makers had respond to quickly and effectively to the issues that arose:

There were decisions that were made a lot quicker. So, previously, internal structures, like any big organisation, are a big juggernaut in here. And at times there’s about a thousand committees and management meetings to get anything through any various levels. We just cut through that. Because we had no time for that. So, there was delegated responsibility given to all of us that was working on the whole response, just to get on with it. That was the message that came through loud and clear. The message was, “Get on with it, make it happen, get it done”.  So we were like, “Okay!”

Covid also galvanised an outcomes-focused approach and produced responses which were satisficing and effective rather than bound by conventions and regulations.

The covid emergency therefore accelerated some policy processes and working practices which accord with a strategic approach. However, these features were not unique to Scotland nor to strategic governments. Scotland may be doing things differently – and doing some different things – from the UK government, but whether this is producing significantly different outcomes remains unclear. There may be a shared vision in Scotland, but this must be implemented effectively. As Sun Tzu noted two and half thousand years ago, ‘strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory’, and delivery remains Scotland’s Achilles Heel.

An emergency is by definition extraordinary and urgent, and these circumstances both require and enable policy innovation. However, such conditions apply less to chronic problems in less dramatic circumstances nor to wicked and complex grand challenges. It seems that the covid emergency isn’t the main challenge to governing strategically, but more mundane quotidian practices. Perhaps contrary to what Harold Macmillan supposedly mused, it is not so much ‘events dear boy, events’ which prevent governments delivering a strategy, but habits.

About the author

Stephen Sinclair is Professor of Social Policy at Glasgow Caledonian University.


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