By Steve Kelman

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Collaboration inside government during the COVID crisis

collaboration (gerasimov_foto_174/Shutterstock.com)

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Harvard University's Kennedy School, like most universities, moved to online teaching only. Our executive education classes have almost always required that people travel physically to Cambridge, and with the campus being closed, two sessions of our flagship exec ed program, Senior Executive Fellows, were actually cancelled. But for the June program we decided to bite the bullet and to hold the program virtually. It is going on now. (The School has also announced that the October Senior Executive Fellows will be online only.)

I was frankly very pessimistic, more than most of my colleagues, that people would not want to come except for an in-person experience, where they could interact with their government colleagues and with faculty. It turns out I was completely wrong – there was a lot of pent-up demand after two cancelled sessions, and some people welcomed the opportunity for a less-expensive program (with no need for lodging and meals) and the opportunity to stay with their families rather than leaving for a month. So we have ended up with 90 participants, somewhat larger than a typical SEF class.

Another thing that I was worried about missing was interactions with the participants outside of class. That too has worked somewhat better than I feared -- a number of participants have taken the initiative to set up Zoom meetings together.

One of those students is a New Zealander named Graham Wilson, who is doing the class remotely from New Zealand. I noticed him the very first class I taught when he brought up an issue about how New Zealand uses performance measurement in government, which some blog readers will recognize as a Steve Kelman hobby horse. He then contacted me about getting together on Zoom, which we have now done.

It was a fascinating conversation. Wilson is Navy veteran and a current New Zealand civil servant whose job for the last three months has been chief of staff in the Office of the Prime Minister, which puts him in charge of staffing and organizing committees involving the government that the prime minister runs. Interestingly, this is a civil service position, not a political one; when the new prime minister came to office several months ago, the prime minister asked ministries to nominate candidates. Wilson won an internal contest in the Ministry of Defense to be nominated, then he was interviewed and selected in a governmentwide competition.

He chose an interesting time for this job. The new prime minister was Jacinda Ardern, a 39-year-old mother of a toddler, whose only previous political job had been as a rank-and-file member of Parliament. Adern was a surprise choice as leader of the opposition Labour Party who then swept the country,bringing them to a surprise election victory.

And then almost immediately after she has become prime minister, the coronavirus broke out. Adern has received kudos in the U.S. and elsewhere for very early and aggressive actions against the disease, with a lockdown even before the first case hit New Zealand. The disease was effectively vanquished from New Zealand (though just last week the country uncovered two cases, the first in over three weeks, from people entering the country from abroad).

Wilson was given a number of responsibilities for coronavirus response involving the cross-agency committee that had been set up for this purpose. He told me a fascinating story: The government wanted to do tracing for those who had been in contact with people who had tested positive. The health ministry was really short of people to do this. At a tabletop exercise of the cross-agency committee in February, after the virus had spread to Italy, somebody came up with the idea of getting other agencies to provide capacity for contact tracing.

The police said crime was down significantly with the lockdown, so there were employees at their citizen call centers with little demand for their services. When the airports were closed a month later, transportation security said they had a lot of staff just sitting around, and they volunteered as well. With one day of training, these agencies were ready to serve as contact tracers, and they soon got to work. (Their salaries continued to be paid by their own agencies.) 

I asked Wilson whether they considered using contractors – as we might have done in the US -- rather than an inside-of-government collaborative effort. He said they felt they couldn’t have geared up such an effort so quickly.

And in some cases, these loaner employees brought unexpectedly relevant expertise. The Ministry for Primary Industries, for example, had dealt with a virus in cows across the farming community in 2018 and 2019. Communications staffers from that ministry were assigned to the COVID response team to take charge of comms.

The bottom line is that during the crisis a whole bunch of government employees started doing work not in their job descriptions. To hear Wilson tell the story, getting these other agencies to pitch in was not so hard. The crisis was one that required a whole-of-government response, so parochial resistance was minimal. Also, New Zealand is a very small country (population 5 million), so there are incomparably closer ties among Kiwi civil servants than in the U.S.

But still, we shouldn’t underestimate this achievement. Nothing like this had been done before; after a devastating earthquake that hit New Zealand in 2011, no such collaboration was organized. And staff was being asked here to go above and beyond their duties.

If you can do this once during a crisis, you may create connective tissue available for use in the future as well. Now that it’s been done once, Wilson is working on how the model can be applied to other crises. Efforts such as these may sometimes fail to take place just because nobody thought to ask.

To put it gently, organizing a response like this one would be much harder in the U.S. Nonetheless, a much milder version of this occurred among anti-terrorism organizations such as the CIA and FBI after 9/11, despite a long tradition of interdepartmental suspicion and sometimes outright hostility. These organizations are now collaborating much more than in the past. If we think that such collaboration is important to solve public problems, we need to be self-conscious about creating and then nurturing it.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 24, 2020 at 6:25 AM


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