Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic well – or with the least harm – requires governments to adopt a much more digitally savvy approach to informing and deciding policy, and measuring its effects, says Andy Guest.
I have resisted using the phrase ‘new normal’ because it implies that the path of human development has been fundamentally changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
My view is that it hasn’t. To take a materials analogy, human behaviour is elastic in its response to short-term shock: it is distorted but snaps back to its original shape, or close, afterwards. It takes sustained force to produce a permanent change. Undoubtably COVID-19 will leave some lasting impressions on society and the economy but our current, severe warping in direct human interaction and socialisation will probably be temporary.
That said, trends that were already perceptible have been accelerated. These have been driven by technological progress, in most cases. Many materials deform little when force alone is applied, but are reshaped dramatically under the same force when heated. COVID-19 has had a heating effect on society.
COVID-19 could be with us for some time to come – a second wave and more to follow. Can we harness the pandemic itself to reduce its negative impacts? We need to learn how to use the heating and shape-changing effect to make society more resilient, reducing the shock that each cycle of the virus brings.
There are three key challenges that all governments are seeking to address, with varying degrees of success:
- Seeing and being judged on the effects of their actions: the time lag between policy decisions and societal outcomes has shortened and become much more explicit.
- Steering the right economic course: decisions must mitigate short-term economic shocks but keep long-term goals in sight so that we emerge with the economy we want, not the one the pandemic creates.
- Social disenfranchisement: increasing social disadvantage and inequality makes it harder to implement control measures that rely on collective accountability.
Although each government and society will have a different approach to these challenges, there are common objectives and enablers needed by all. These should be pursued in an integrated way. And notwithstanding the burden the pandemic is placing on government time and budgets, those objectives and enablers should be prioritised to mitigate the negative impacts the pandemic will have.
Governments must recognise their systems, processes and capacity are not configured to operate under pandemic conditions. They need to boost their capability by bringing in specialists in dealing with complex scenarios and making rapid decisions under duress, supported by the right management systems and procedures for giving and receiving feedback.
There is an important role for digital technologies here, as a means to gather the right information to provide insight and assist decisions that will achieve desired outcomes. Relatively simple models or ‘digital twins’ can contribute significantly to the quality and effectiveness of decisions. Digital twins employ data to provide information about performance, make sense of complexity and enable faster, more accurate interventions that deliver better outcomes and value. Governments should begin developing twins of the systems on which society relies, recognising all of the interconnections, to understand the impacts of policy. Again, there’s a need for specialists who know how to cost-effectively build those models and who have the skillset to map the systemic interactions and to measure the effects.
Governments must focus on improving the lives of those most disadvantaged in society. Global recession notwithstanding, now is the time to invest in new digital methods for assessing the social impact of investment. Building back faster is not the same as building back better – although digitally enhanced decision-making supports both. Governments must take care that decisions made in haste don’t deliver a sting in the tail, in the form of widening disparity, missed opportunity and social alienation.
Read more on the role of digitalisation in navigating the coronavirus crisis in An alternative recovery plan.