Public Service Innovation and Leadership During COVID-19: What Can We Learn?
In March 2020, Canada entered into its worst pandemic in a century. The country had not faced a multidimensional challenge of this magnitude since the two world wars. However, this time, Canada would be part of the combat theatre and, like most of the planet, ill equipped against a silent enemy stalking it like brushfire.
Our objective with this paper is not to assess the Canadian public administration response to this overall crisis, nor to pretend that it was perfect. Many of these exercises are already under way or will follow and hopefully will support future responses.
While the crisis brought its waves of challenges, it also created a number of opportunities for various levels of government to innovate and adapt their programs to better serve Canadians. As part of the Public Service Leadership and Innovation During COVID-19 project, PPF tried to capture examples of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by the public service across Canada, responses that demonstrated unique and often courageous leadership in the face of a crisis, but maybe more importantly, pointed to fundamentally new ways of thinking and doing things.
Through this paper, we wish to describe some of these new ways of working based on the nine case studies, 50+ interviews and 200+ surveys with public servants in provincial and federal governments. But more importantly, we wish to draw from these cases the critical factors that offer the best potential for long-lasting changes.
We have examined these case studies to better understand why innovation can be easier during crises and some of the factors that should be nurtured to allow an innovation culture in public administration, one that allows experimentation and the adoption of the most the promising initiatives.
COVID-19, as a crisis, was a perfect storm because of its scope that affected the whole planet, its scale with a profound impact on people and human activities, and its duration, a marathon that called upon resilience of responders at all levels and citizens. Yet, the necessity of crisis also created innovation space and changes in organizational behaviours that translated into significant benefits for citizens. Through the lens of our nine case studies, let’s look at how public administrations embraced innovation to serve Canadians in the middle of a major crisis.
Communicating with citizens
The uncertainty that comes with a new virus, with the scientific understanding evolving daily, creates fertile ground for disinformation. While frequent media briefings by elected officials and public health experts provided key updates and guidance, public health authorities’ websites and contact centres were inundated with enquiries as people sought specific information, the latest updates, or reassurance about their symptoms.
Responding to this thirst for information, Health Canada in a matter of days developed an email-subscription client centric platform that provided objective information tailored on clients’ interests.
In an effort to respond to anxieties, Alberta Health Services rapidly developed an online self-assessment tool to guide citizens on their symptoms and whether they should be tested. Building on the initial success, the platform expanded functionality and became the preferred channel to book testing appointments and receiving results.
Agility in policy tools and responses
Responding to private sector concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on many businesses and the desire to maintain the relationship between employers and employees to be well positioned for recovery, the Department of Finance and the Canada Revenue Agency designed and deployed, within a matter of days, a wage subsidy program to complement the initial income support programs (CERB) that had been put in place at the beginning of the pandemic.
In a matter of weeks, Global Affairs Canada, through close collaboration with airlines and a multitude of diplomatic demarches to allow departure, staged the most complex consular repatriation to this day, bringing more than 50,000 Canadian citizens and their immediate family members back home.
Leveraging the online channel to provide access to mental care and justice
Concerned that COVID-19 could exacerbate an already stressed mental health care supply for a vulnerable population, the PEI Mental Health and Addiction Team leveraged the opportunities of virtual care so successfully that supply and ongoing support actually improved during the pandemic.
In a sector known for its addiction to paper and in-person proceedings, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General was able to design and implement, in a few weeks, a virtual court system that ensured access to justice and mitigated a growing backlog of court cases.
Getting out of comfort zones to serve national interests
While experienced in measuring the impact of economic recessions, Statistics Canada had no playbook to measure the impact of an economic lockdown and its disproportionate effects on various segments of the population, to meet the urgent needs for timely evidence-based policy responses. Leveraging new approaches such as crowd sourcing and existing data sets, it developed tools that, while not perfect, were reliable enough to guide a timely policy response.
While the best scientists on the planet were engaged in a race for vaccines and treatments, the uncertainty offered fertile ground for systemic disinformation campaigns. The Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), working closely with its sister agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), had to develop virtual outreach to biopharma to sensitize companies on threats and vulnerabilities to their research. It also supported efforts to counter systemic disinformation.
Combining scientific and traditional knowledge in the fight
Building on its currency in providing Indigenous-led health and social services, the Kenora Chiefs Advisory (KCA), an Indigenous service agency, successfully drew on guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) and its local and traditional assets to keep COVID-19 at bay in a vulnerable community.
A crisis, particularly an enduring one like COVID-19, galvanizes and focuses attention on solutions (“can do”). It creates fertile ground for innovation and transformational leadership. We have regrouped the enabling factors in four categories:
- Governance, decision-making and leadership;
- Risk taking;
- Core public service capacities; and
Governance, decision-making and leadership
Crises create a unique environment that often allow for new and innovative approaches because they capture and focus the attention of the institution on a common set of problems. Senior management’s prime focus is on the crisis: one priority, not 10.
This focussed attention and urgent imperatives encouraged leaders to create the space for potential solutions to be identified, analyzed and debated, with the best ones launched with the right critical mass to succeed in a significantly compressed time schedule. As flagged in the Health Canada subscription case study and present in many others, senior managers were there to provide strategic direction and resolve roadblocks, but staff were empowered to come up with innovation and implementation.
The focus on a common purpose favoured collaboration that strives for the best combination of talent and complementary competencies and the leveraging of partnerships, internal or external, that may be best suited for success as opposed to structures, hierarchy and vested interests. As illustrated in the P.E.I. mental health case, having the right people rather than numbers at the table was key, and the pandemic provided an opportunity to convene the right people on a common cause. Statistics Canada’s engagement with the private sector to access data, and the Global Affairs Canada outreach to airlines as partners in the repatriation, speak to the importance of leveraging external partners who may be best placed to support the effort.
The public sector has always been generally more risk averse, probably not a surprise given the importance of responsible public purse management. Yet sound risk taking is crucial for governments in order to advance big policy files. There are numerous examples in Canada’s history when governments performed delicate risk/reward calculations that produced substantial public benefits. (Examples include the Fathers of Confederation with their national railway and the Quebec Government with the James Bay Dam project.) On the flip side, excessive risk aversion that leaves no room to experiment often hides the huge opportunity costs of doing nothing.
The urgent problem resolution imperatives of a crisis affected the risk/reward calculus because suddenly, the risk of doing nothing (the opportunity cost) was perceived as greater. The need for immediate solutions created an “art of the possible” mindset that left space for agile experimentation in developing and implementing policies, programs and services. Paralysis by analysis was replaced by creative solutions that could be implemented rapidly with the right ongoing course correction. Public servants were more focussed on the immediate desired public outcomes than the potential questions down the road from external oversight bodies, if things were not perfect.
We have noted in the cases that the crisis also provided an opportunity for action or implementation of initiatives that had been in the making for years but were lacking urgency and focus. For example:
- Statistics Canada was well engaged on the existential question of identifying new sources of data when the pandemic response called for timely evidence-gathering to guide support.
- Global Affairs Canada had performed a lessons-learned exercise on the challenges it had faced in the consular response to the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which stranded Canadians in a region where the Canadian Government had barely any assets on the ground.
- In a world where the intellectual property of leading-edge private companies or public mindsets are now common targets of ill-intended foreign activities, CSIS and its sister agency CSE were already on a path to engage more actively with the private sector and citizens on the threats of economic security and disinformation.
- Virtual court proceedings were being examined as a way to increase the capacity of the justice system in Ontario.
The development of the Alberta online assessment tool is a particularly instructive initiative on the issue of risk/rewards. While it may have looked riskier at the onset to develop an online COVID-19 self-screening tool than to add personnel to overwhelmed call centres, the online path enabled high volume standardized self-assessment, to target testing and free up medical personnel for more critical tasks. Its successful implementation and public adoption allowed its incremental expansion as the preferred channel to obtain testing appointments and results.
Capacity (financial, human and technological resources)
Without a doubt, crises may enable financial investment in innovations and transformation that would not have been immediately available in steady state. Yet many of the case studies that we have documented did not necessarily require significant investments, beyond income support programs such as the wage subsidy initiative or CERB. However, the pandemic as a substantial and enduring crisis created opportunities to expand and optimize capacity by:
- Simplifying and lowering some of the process barriers, such as procurement and human resources rules on hiring, to allow a nimble response;
- Allowing significant and swift reallocation of human resources to meet resiliency and “surge capacity” needs. The fact that some other demands dropped during the pandemic facilitated this critical mass reallocation (e.g., the GAC consular repatriation that required an intense 24/7 operation over several weeks because of its scope and scale);
- Taking full advantage of digital capacities in place and acquiring new ones. Many of our interviewees indicated that they had no appreciation of the online capabilities available on their existing desktops until they became necessary during the pandemic. Yet, this adoption by necessity may open opportunities for a more flexible work model that could have larger benefits (accessing remote areas, environment, quality of life etc.); and
- Exploring new innovative partnerships by aligning common interests (e.g., StatsCan with business associations, GAC with airlines and CSIS/CSE with biopharma sector).
But the cases also illustrated that the pre-crisis capacity and emergency response preparedness of organizations will influence their capacity to respond: It is easier to respond in a creative and nimble way if the muscles of how to respond to a multitude of scenarios, including some of the most unforeseen, have been tested, and the appropriate protocols and enablers are in place. A few examples:
- The maturity that GAC gained in the large-scale evacuation of Lebanon in 2006 and other complex consular responses, and the lessons-learned conducted on their setbacks in the 2017 Atlantic Hurricanes response, had planted seeds for future complex consular responses;
- The internal information technology capacity that Alberta Health Services had built allowed a rapid response with busines owners in developing the online COVID-19 self-assessment tool;
- A similar enduring partnership between the Finance Department as policy arm and the Canadian Revenue Agency as the implementation arm of tax policies, plus the strength of the CRA information technology platform that has always been well financed because of its critical revenue generation mission, made it the logical channel for the CERB and wage subsidy income support initiatives;
- The ability to offer medical care online overnight, like the mental health care in P.E.I., was hampered in some provinces by the absence of pre-existing renumeration schemes; and
- The Indigenous health and social services agency was able to bank on the solid relationship that it had built with a vulnerable community to implement science-based public health protection measures and leverage unique assets of the community, such as traditional knowledge, to support food safety and space to facilitate distancing measures.
The pandemic also redefined communication approaches in a number of ways.
From an internal dimension, public administrations had to redesign overnight how they would adjust their communication for an online environment. Our interviews and the case studies illustrate that this was uneven at first and largely influenced by pre-pandemic posture and practices. While those who had already embraced virtual work environment by necessity or curiosity were initially better positioned in the initial months of Spring, most public administration had developed a relative comfort with their new online environment within a few months. While the online environment has required substantial adjustments to the working environment, executives also note that it has open new ways of connecting with more employees in a medium less sterile than broadcast emails.
While public administrations were tested to adapt their internal communication approaches overnight to a new online environment, external communication has been the biggest challenge.
With a rapidly changing scientific understanding of the virus and how best to protect against it, the government had to inform and engage the public in the battle, and tag on the delicate responsibility of infringing on individual liberties for the collective well-being. Transparent and honest client centric communication on an uncertain and rapidly evolving situation has been critical, with a greater focus on audience needs as opposed to the government’s communication intent. The example of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)’s email-subscription service demonstrates how a client centric platform provided great insights into real information and knowledge gaps and how to address them.
What changes will (or should) be sustained in the long-term?
This virus teaches us to step back and evaluate what is really important. There is an opportunity to fundamentally change our systems, processes and ways of doing.” – Chief Lorraine Cobiness, Chair, Kenora Chiefs Advisory
It would be sad to ignore some of the lessons on the ability of the public service to innovate and transform during one of the most significant crises of the century. Drawing on the lessons learned, we identified three areas for long-lasting change:
- Focussed mission: Post-crisis, public service organizations need to generate the same type of focussed attention through better segmentation of priorities and distributed leadership that allows them to move in a more nimble way in times of crisis. This requires leaders to: 1) endorse a direction and engage their troops in a common purpose towards the desired outcomes of the initiative; 2) provide the enabling critical mass in terms of both talent and capacity to drive the initiative to success; and 3) assist in removing the barriers that are already present or will inevitably surface, as we have noted in our case studies . In a focussed mission environment, the role of leaders at all levels is to create the environment for the identification of a limited set of priorities to receive the appropriate attention, resources and troubleshooting to succeed.
- A more empowered workforce and place focussed on citizen outcomes: In the progressive return to “normality”, public administrations should embrace some of the enabling factors that have contributed to their ability to innovate during the crisis:
- A citizen-centred approach to policymaking where “public good impact” is the measure rather than tick marks on a process map;
- A creative space that brings together the right talent in mission-led governance as opposed to structures and hierarchies;
- The blend of policy thinkers and doers to apply an implementation lens on the initiative from the start to increase both the prospects and the speed of successful implementation;
- A license to experiment, with room to make mistakes and course correct with an acknowledgment that doing nothing is not risk/cost free; and
- More flexible work arrangements that focus on outcomes (not outputs) that can optimize organizational goals and employee well-being and mental health.
- Scaling up successes and applying learnings: Some of the innovation documented in the case studies, for example the P.E.I. online mental health care and the Ontario virtual court initiative, offer just too much potential in the overwhelmed sectors of health care and justice not to be adapted and scaled up. This requires a rapid assessment of the learnings and requirements to expand them to their fullest potential in this specific sector of activities post pandemic. It requires the leadership at all levels to embrace this wider adoption. Organizations like Statistics Canada and CSIS must expand on the external partnerships that they have developed to meet their respective missions, such as informing policy development and protecting the economic security of Canadians.
But more importantly, all public sector organizations should reflect on their successful innovations and learn from their setbacks, to both support ongoing transformations and be prepared for the next crisis.