Governance in a Crisis

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The coronavirus pandemic can serve as a window of opportunity. In their new book Prof. Nissim Cohen and Ron Tzur present decision-makers a roadmap for how to better deal with crisis in Israel.



This book offers a comprehensive and uniform model for the evaluation of effective public policy for the real-time management of the COVID-19 crisis. It is a call for the immediate application of During Action Review. This takes place in the wake of a series of decisions made in the process of managing the crisis management and as part of orderly long-term policy, offering a present-oriented and sober perspective that also looks ahead to the future. This is necessary because the policy decisions taken to date and the ensuing measures implemented have neither solved the crisis or provided an adequate response to its immediate and future consequences.

We have written this book against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic. Even though our main goal is to propose a comprehensive model for the immediate handling of the crisis, this model could be applied, with appropriate modifications, in other crisis situations in the future.

The coronavirus pandemic can also serve as a window of opportunity in which decision-makers may be persuaded that the time has come to act, to apply the policy evaluation, and to aspire to a culture of policy evaluation and comprehensive investigation. Accordingly, the present book hopes to make three main contributions to Israeli institutions:

(1) It proposes a specific model for investigating and evaluating policy during the current crisis—a model that can be used immediately and can improve outcomes as we prepare for this winter’s anticipated morbidity and mortality peaks.

(2) It calls for the adoption of such model in other crises that will inevitably follow. 

(3) It calls for the internalization and integration in Israel of a culture of policy evaluation (both during crises and in routine times) as part of a broader process of devising and implementing carefully strategically planned and comprehensive policies.

We maintain that in Israeli government circles today there is very little structured methodology or culture of policy evaluation; on the national level, it seems there never has been. 

Some areas of the public system have conducted spot investigations, but the lack of a methodology or policy evaluation culture is currently causing grave difficulties for both professional and elected decision-makers when required to conduct an effective national situation assessment and institute economic, social, medical, and other policies in accordance with the changing circumstances of the pandemic and its repercussions. We believe that government adoption of this model will increase the legitimacy that policymakers of the professional and political echelons need in order to reexamine fundamental assumptions, work processes, and policy decisions that have not, thus far, been sufficiently effective, to learn their mistakes, and to work to correct them. All of this must be done uniformly across all public administration institutions, with necessary adaptations to specific departments and organizations. We hope that, in the long term, the adoption of our proposed policy evaluation model will trigger a substantive change in the broader realm of public policy in Israel and promote more effective policy design and implementation. Immediate adoption of the model could lay the foundations for the integration of a rational and systematic policymaking culture and for a major and sweeping reform of all things related to policy implementation.

In light of our current spare knowledge about the novel coronavirus and humankind’s ability to deal with it on the medical level—finding a safe vaccine, identifying effective drugs or a solution based on natural immunity—it is likely that this will prove a recurring crisis at least through the intermediate term. Furthermore, it should be assumed that Israel will have other crisis situations to deal with in the future, be they natural or human-made disasters. Therefore, the sooner decision-makers take steps based on a culture of policy evaluation and a structured model for evaluating public policy on both the local and national level, the greater the odds that Israel will be able to cope successfully with future management of the COVID-19 pandemic. From a long-term perspective, the integration of both the concept and the model will make a substantive contribution to the quality of the national response to the next crisis, whose arrival is only a matter of time. It is important that the implementation of the policy evaluation model involve the executive agencies as well, that is, those who deal with the crisis on the ground: the defense and security establishment, law enforcement agencies, local government, representatives of the business sector, and civil society organizations. 

Israel entered the crisis with a relatively poor hand. Even though its economic data were better than those in other countries, its capacity for governance and management at the strategic level was not, to put it mildly, what we might want. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed existing structural, governmental, and professional failures. The picture is of a broken government system, fragmented at all levels: political instability, hostility and rivalries within the government, a tectonic fault and profound lack of trust between the elected and professional echelons, fragmentation and inadequate cooperation across professional work processes, a lack of orderly interfaces between government and the business sector, academia, and civil society (cross-sector), and the severe erosion of public trust and willingness to comply with directives. 

Six months after COVID-19 reached Israel in February 2020, we see that the way the country has dealt with the crisis to date reflects a national weakness in managing crises that are not of a military nature. Thus far, no basic practices for the management of ongoing crises have been properly applied, such as the collection of confirmed data in order to map the national situation, process it into a national situation assessment, and devise scenario-based alternatives that the elected representatives can choose to implement. Even after the latter decided what actions to take, the absence of a nationwide agency to oversee their implementation (the responsibility for leading strategy to action), supplementing the responsibility of each government ministry and other executive agencies, has been painfully obvious. Particularly prominent is the lack of an infrastructure for policy evaluation during a continuing event: there are no laws, regulations, directives, or formal government guidelines for the management of a chronic crisis that specify a consistent methodology of investigation and/or policy evaluation. Even the efforts to learn from relevant nongovernmental sources of knowledge and information, such as universities, hospitals, and representative organizations of the business sector, have been haphazard and irregular. The same is true of discourse with various nongovernmental groups that offer recommendations, regardless of whether they have the necessary knowledge, background, or legitimacy to advise the government. Even after the long series of government decisions and legislation that have marked these months, the actions of ministries, local authorities, and various other agencies are not adequately or effectively coordinated from above; there has been no structured, systematic national process for generating ideas and drawing lessons as the basis for the decisions that will have to be taken in the future. There have been a number of ad hoc studies by various entities, but these were not conducted as part of a formal process of national policy evaluation that includes all the agencies involved in combating the pandemic.

In the present document we note that in other countries too there is criticism of the failure to manage the crisis and gain control over the pandemic. In other countries, as in Israel, there are problems of governance, a widening of social gaps, and severe economic damage. However, we aim to focus not on international comparisons but on the need to optimize the future response to the pandemic in Israel. We recommend instituting a structured and professional process that allows us to glean insights based on a comparison between what we expected to happen and what actually happened and between what we have done thus far and what we could have done better.

The management of the pandemic has been marked by a seesaw effect: the need to find the point of equilibrium between efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus and their heavy economic costs and consequent implications for society. The efforts to flatten the infection curve must be balanced by consistent and appropriate efforts to flatten the recession curve and the blow to the economy; the more drastic and extreme the steps taken to flatten the pandemic curve, the more severe the damage to the economy. Today it is clear that crisis management policy of this sort requires the clarification that it is a risk management process that aspires to, on the one hand, reduce the loss of human life and, on the other hand, lessen the business mortality rate which leads to deep recession, long-term unemployment, and the accompanying economic and social consequences. 

Vapid declarations such as “we are imposing a lockdown in order to gain time” or “we have to flatten the curve” are not enough. Effective policy and management of a protracted crisis require the setting of clear national objectives and the key outcomes to be achieved. In addition, there is a need for maximum transparency so as to reduce the level of uncertainty that undermines public trust. It should be noted that several years ago, as part of its routine conduct, the government began successfully adopting a professional planning culture that is expressed in ministry work plans and includes clear metrics of success. This proves that it is indeed possible to improve management processes in the public sector.

Three essential elements are required in order to define the clear objectives and key outcomes needed during a crisis marked by such a high degree of uncertainty:

1. Clear and transparent data that have been validated and are accepted (at least most of them) automatically as the basis for decisions and policymaking;

2. Clear and transparent principles or criteria employed by decision-makers to set policy and manage risks;

3. An end to the use of recommendations based on linear and single-channel planning and a transition to scenario-based planning, which Israel is not accustomed to employing in its routine activity.

This document offers a concise survey of what policy evaluation is and why it is important for a modern country, while providing links to relevant literature for government operations in emergency situations. After that, we briefly review the situation in selected countries (the United States, Britain, and Sweden), focusing on their capacity for governance and policy evaluation and its connection with the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. We then present a snapshot of the current situation in Israel and note in passing the poor governance abilities of Israeli decision-makers and the lack of an orderly culture and methodology of investigation, policy evaluation, and the drawing of lessons at various levels of government. Finally, we propose a comprehensive model for public policy evaluation during crises, adapted to suit the Israeli political and administrative system.

The proposed model for public policy evaluation in crisis situations was devised after examining various existing models for the management of national nonmilitary crises, policy and/or process guidelines relevant to other topics that have been published in Israel, and their modification to suit the needs of the current administrative and political system in Israel. The model is generic and suitable for incorporation into any process for managing a protracted national crisis. It is not intended for just the current coronavirus crisis but designed so that its adoption will enable effective continuity in dealing with the next wave of the pandemic, and improve preparedness for the events of the coming months and, perhaps, the coming years.

The model is built in such a way that it clarifies the official representatives and partners involved in the policy evaluation process, the sequence of the evaluation process from the operational level through the national level, and, of course, the content of the policy evaluation itself. At the core of the model are a number of key questions: What were the basic assumptions when the policy was adopted? What is the policy’s range of uncertainty? What were the main influences on the process of designing and setting the policy? What were the policy’s objectives and anticipated outcomes? What actually happened and why? What are the most important insights and recommendations for revising the policy in order to continue managing the crisis? 

We emphasize that we do not see our proposed model as the be-all and end-all. Rather, it is an advanced, but not final, draft of our recommendations to the professional and political echelons in Israel. The Israel Democracy Institute will sponsor a symposium on the topic, with the participation of senior decision-makers from Israeli public administration. We hope to improve our findings and recommendations on the basis of this dialogue. Not only is this model the basis for improvement and open to the inclusion of additional elements and perspectives which we may have missed, but it is likely to also require additions and amendments as time passes and new developments occur. Because public policymaking is an ongoing process that changes as it develops, decision-makers will have to evaluate the model from time to time. Updating the model to match changing circumstances is crucial, because it is the critical infrastructure for examining policy, its outcomes, and its impact and for pointing out the need to continue the policy, modify it, or switch direction as stipulated by the decision-makers. Since the evaluation model is based on particular assumptions and current knowledge, these will need to be reexamined and validated with time in order to allow for a dynamic and flexible evaluation culture that is open to the necessary changes and adjustments. 

Link to the Hebrew publication.  

Ron Tzur is CEO of the Sparks Consulting Group and chair of the advisory board of the Israeli Leadership Forum.

Prof. Nissim (Nessi) Cohen is the head of the head of the Center for Public Management and Policy at the University of Haifa.