The COVID-19 crisis has placed unprecedented demands on public servants in all jurisdictions in the country. Their response has been highly praised as innovative, agile, and compassionate. It is no exaggeration to say that we are setting the bar for global best practices with respect to how governments are navigating the social and economic challenges posed by the pandemic. Though times have been tough before, we have never seen anything like this. Canadians are looking to their governments for help. No doubt, as we move to a recovery phase, we will cast a critical eye on the response to COVID-19. This is healthy. It won’t all be positive; the key is to learn lessons that we can take with us.
As businesses were forced to close abruptly in mid-March, which triggered a loss of more than a million jobs in that month alone, Canadian workers were immediately divided into two categories: those who could continue working from home, and those whose jobs could not convert to an online platform. Universities have moved classrooms online, many public servants are writing and collaborating from home offices, while health professionals work on the frontlines, taking on the greatest risk to keep others safe. The construction, fitness, restaurant, tourism, and “touch” industries (such as massage therapists and hair and nail salons), among others, have been largely forced to close due to the realities of physical distancing. Some dining rooms and pubs can continue to do business via take outs, but this is no substitute for the world they knew before. As the curve flattens, each province will pursue its own recovery strategy, suited to the particular needs of its people and economy as well as the province’s experience with the spread of COVID-19.
Federal and provincial governments have set up financial aid programs for both individuals and businesses to mitigate at least some of the damage. Former Clerk of the Privy Council Mel Cappe has noted that, in the effort to disperse financial relief as quickly as possible, the public service has opted to roll money out now and fix mistakes later. Rather than front-end loading the verification process to ensure that people qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) before payments go out, we have created a quick and expeditious process to receive payments and those made in error will be recovered later. This kind of responsiveness will become an expectation even after the COVID-19 crisis is over. We will see a shift in the culture of the public service toward a greater tolerance for risk and imperfection, which could provide a strong foundation for largescale innovation and experimentation in policy and service delivery.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had the effect of uprooting and transforming almost all of our routines, both at home at work. The reality of having to redefine what qualifies as ‘normal’ opens up all kinds of possibilities for change. For example, some people might find that they work more efficiently and effectively at home. They might wish to continue this even after physical distancing requirements are relaxed. Both public and private employers will have to think about the implications of this from a human resources perspective. Some questions for consideration are: How is the overall workload affected by working from home as opposed to the office? Do we end up doing more work, less, or about the same? Do meetings on Microsoft Teams and Zoom tax us in ways that face to face interactions do not? How will we create effective teams, networks, and collaborations in the absence of face to face interactions, which provide spontaneous opportunities to socialize and build trust? How will employees maintain a healthy work/life balance, if those worlds collapse into one physical space?
In their responses to COVID-19 so far, many governments have been specifically attentive to the effects of coronavirus on vulnerable populations, including victims of domestic violence, children, and people with disabilities. This is critical to making real recovery possible. It is vitally important, as we draft plans towards reopening and recovering, that we embrace strategies that are inclusive of and attentive to all populations, demographic constituencies, and socioeconomic realities. This is not just about recovery in a purely economic sense; it is about addressing socioeconomic inequities that existed before COVID-19 and that were exacerbated by the pandemic and its effects.