Five lessons for local governments during COVID-19

As governments design national level responses to COVID-19, the role of local government is pivotal in ensuring implementation.


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced an estimated 2.6 billion people worldwide into some form of lockdown (as of mid-April). The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker shows that governments have taken a host of complex measures including restrictions on public transport and international travel, school and workplace closures, bans on public gatherings and other steps to create social distancing. Governments are also investing in economic stimulus packages and emergency healthcare.

These interventions represent an unprecedented challenge for governments. While the magnitude of the challenge and policy responses vary across borders, the focus needed at the household and community level highlights the pivotal role local governments must play in response to a crisis.

In some countries, including Italy, the exponential spread of the virus from one province to another was attributed to decentralisation of health, police and emergency services to local governments, resulting in fragmented responses. On the other hand, local leaders in New York (USA), Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo (Brazil), and Kerala (India) have been praised for their pro-activeness, where national leaders seemed in denial or delay. Lessons from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2014-16 demonstrated that top-down quarantine was ineffective till community leaders (village chiefs, women and youth leaders) were involved.

The nature of the pandemic requiring both short and medium-term policy responses, makes it vital for governments and development partners to invest in the strengthening of local government.

Our Public Sector Governance team is working with a leading donor on developing a diagnostic tool for local government reforms. It aims to: enable development practitioners to understand how local governments function within a larger socio-political setting; to study how decentralisation impacts programming, and to design interventions specific to sub-national level. This is even more relevant now, as large donor and government programmes design national level responses to COVID-19, but must consider local contexts. For example, a village with many seasonal migrants might require testing at borders or waivers on documents required for social protection, while a town housing mostly elderly people might require home-based testing and pension releases.

Through the breadth of our work and experience with local government we have identified five key lessons for the COVID-19 response at the sub-national level:

Eliminate institutional overlaps: There needs to be a clear division of functions between national and local governments, between different social sectors as well as various arms of local governments. Responding to crises requires clarity on who is doing what, who controls the funds and who makes critical decisions. Previous outbreaks show that national governments should devise overarching crises-response strategies with local governments aligning their plans to it. This is crucial so that essential services such as food chains, social protection and routine health services are minimally disrupted during a crisis. OPM research shows that routine immunisation of children in India was interrupted when frontline workers were needed for COVID-19 response.

Encourage emergency preparedness: While many countries have elaborate national disaster preparedness plans, the pandemic shows that local governments too need strong emergency management systems that can identify vulnerable pockets and respond to challenges quickly as they arise. Local governments need their own adequate revenue, or smooth central transfers to mobilise funds quickly. For example, cities with strong financial management and autonomous mayors could quickly buy ventilators during this pandemic.

Enhance integration: Local bodies need platforms for cross-coordination and communication to rapidly deploy people and resources where they are most needed. Local governments that are inter-connected, that have early warning systems and skilled staff could share information in real-time to contain the crises and to learn from the response of their peers. The Corona Virus Local Response in the USA enables city mayors and public health experts to share response initiatives in real-time; global platforms such as C40 and Engaging Local Government Leaders have also activated digital peer learning for local leaders.

Empower citizens: Past experiences from dealing with SARS (2003) and Ebola show that public action in response to a crisis mitigates its impact. Citizen participation mechanisms (resident welfare associations or village development committees) can be mobilized to work with local agencies. Religious leaders and trusted and credible third parties play important roles in the local communities and their support is needed to spread awareness, particularly in remote and vulnerable communities. Robust accountability (independent media or townhalls) allow citizens to check that emergency resources are distributed equitably and used optimally.

Everyday resilience: For a government to work effectively in the worst of times, it needs to have well-oiled systems, practices and resource flows in the best of times. The system needs to be responsive to citizen needs and changing realities. Crises such as COVID-19 put huge money and resources into the hands of local authorities. The transfer of powers needs corresponding checks and balances (audits and public expenditure reviews). All this can be achieved if we invest in local officials over the long term through training, mentoring and preparedness exercises

As COVID-19 shows, pandemics are complex social and behavioural challenges and not just technocratic issues. Government staff and citizens are grappling with the threat of contracting the infection or dealing with personal loss. Effective coordination mechanisms between national and local governments are critical. We need to strengthen local systems and build the capacity of local officials to manage the policy response (from health to the economy to social protection). Investment in local government will be key to successful recovery and long-term resilience.

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