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Covid-19: Five lessons for public policy

Irish public policy can learn from the experiences of the pandemic to inform Ireland’s policy response to crises in such areas as climate change and biodiversity loss, housing, responding to the war in Ukraine, and dealing with the current cost of living crisis, according to a report from the National Economic and Social Council (NESC).

The NESC report, entitled The Covid-19 Pandemic: Lessons for Irish Public Policy, outlines five key lessons which should be taken into account with future policy formulation, arising from the Covid-19 Pandemic. The lessons are that:

1. Vulnerability is complex and context specific;

2. Stakeholder networks and experts shape outcomes;

3. Real time evidence transforms policymaking;

4. Adapting the policy world to the data world takes great effort; and

5. Communication and trust are critical.

Vulnerability is complex and context specific

NESC asserts that local or sectoral work to pinpoint vulnerability, with national coordination and resourcing, can enhance policy making, allow more targeting of supports to ensure that the most vulnerable receive them, and maximise the value of public investment.

The report states that “pinpointing and managing vulnerability” is the key means of taking on board the vulnerability which faces public policy in emergency situations.

It hopes to achieve this by taking a bottom-up, community-based approach which will focus on the most adaptable measures available for local areas, and involve the engagement of stakeholders at a local level. Furthermore, the report recommends being as clear and concise as possible when communicating directives.

Stakeholder networks and experts shape outcomes

Increasing the means of connectivity between stakeholders and experts is key to maximising efficiency and ensuring that policy can be implemented quickly, NESC states. The report outlines the importance of expanding the tripartite policy interaction which was effective in dealing with labour market issues during the crisis.

The level of engagement with and input from experts is seen as a crucial lesson which can be implemented in other aspects of public policy, as the legislation and government policy to deal with the pandemic was created with an unprecedented level of input from experts.

“The shift to intense collaboration was also evident in relation to labour market supports. Senior figures from both the worker and employer representative organisations were directly involved in the policy dialogue around the development of measures to protect vulnerable enterprises and employees,” the report states.

Real time evidence transforms policymaking

The Covid-19 pandemic taught public policy makers the true value of real-time evidence, which the Council states should be taken on board for future public policy.

“The data gathering, analysis and application which proved so necessary and useful to policymakers during the pandemic should be carefully evaluated to ascertain what should be modified and continued, what systems should be ‘mothballed’, and what activity can be ended entirely.”

The report continues: “There are reasons for cautious optimism about the medium-term course of the pandemic in Ireland in light of our high vaccination rates, medical progress and reducing pressure on the health system. As restrictions are removed, the ‘value’ of Covid data and related behavioural analytics activity to the public policy system falls. Monitoring aggregate mobility, footfall, and close contacts etc is less crucial as increased activity is permissible, necessary, encouraged and expected.”

Adapting the policy world to the data world takes great effort

Ensuring that the data world and policy world are in sync is identified as the fourth lesson to learn from the policy process throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The Council outlines “being data ready” is the key means to realise this objective.

The report acknowledges concerns around “governance, privacy, access, confidentiality and data sharing issues which must be prioritised and addressed with urgency”. Ensuring transparency throughout the process is seen as the key to alleviating these concerns.

Furthermore, the report lists the importance of ensuring that Ireland’s public policy procedure has fully adapted to the concept of ‘two worlds at different speeds’, which is crucial to ensuring as streamlined and efficient a process as possible which facilitates the cooperation of data and policy, thus ensuring the quick creation of policy by experts with the maximisation of data analysis.

Communication and trust are critical

Maximising the trust in public policy is the fifth and final lesson learned from the experience of public policy during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report recommends a course of action driven by reaching out and maximising trust in order to build up relations between the various stakeholders in public policy.

“It is difficult to ‘switch on’ good levels of trust during a crisis. This shows the importance of ensuring that policy decisions work, and are seen to work, to generate, foster, and promote trust in government and institutions,” the report says.

It continues: “Consideration [should] be given to a dedicated programme to ensure policy decisions are seen to work, and sensitising citizens and organisations to the fact that policy shifts are inevitable along the way, as situations develop and the State learns.”

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