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Listen more and demand less: how delivery units can help governments respond to covid-19

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Our senior consultants Alexandra Nastase and Peter Harrington discuss how focusing on support, rather than controlling the system, helps delivery units to best support a covid-19 response

Delivery units can play a critical role in unblocking obstacles to policy implementation during covid-19, if they focus on supporting rather than controlling the system. This means:

  • Understanding and fixing emerging problems by listening instead of demanding information from already stretched subordinated agencies
  • Supporting and facilitating change instead of acting as change agents
  • Channelling information about problems and ideas to support problem solving.

Responding to Covid-19 is difficult and there are no perfect solutions. Countries or provinces that have in place delivery or technical support units, may consider how to use these support functions to strengthen the impact and effectiveness of the central government response.

Governments tend to centralise decision-making and control during a crisis. Delivery units, or technical support units, are the embodiment of this approach; they are usually set up as small entities placed close to the Office of the President or the Prime Minister, or a sectoral minister. Many countries use delivery units to implement ambitious public sector change programmes, leveraging a leader’s authority to cut through red tape, debottleneck delivery systems and deliver results.

There are two broad roles that a delivery unit might play during covid-19. First is to be part of the immediate response where the unit gets involved in direct activities – public health measures, data management, economic stimulus, or plays a role in making these functions work better – contributing to saving lives and providing a cushion to the economic shock. The second role is to focus on the medium to long-term recovery, including minimising indirect loss of life, economic rehabilitation and leveraging opportunities for system strengthening.

Whichever role a unit is asked to assume, what matters most is how the delivery team works at the centre of government. During ‘normal times’, the role of a delivery unit is to deliver at pace on government priorities. During a pandemic the system is already in crisis mode. It is likely that to respond to covid-19, new government structures and teams have been rapidly assembled to respond to the new and unique nature of the crisis. Delivery units are used to being powerful, listened to and in control. But covid-19 calls for a change of paradigm. If the focus shifts from control to support and problem-solving, the delivery units can play an instrumental role in this crisis. Now more than ever is the time for a delivery unit to serve the system first, rather than control it.

Listen more and demand less

One of the key functions of a delivery unit is to work with implementing agencies and departments to identify bottlenecks to delivery. In order to do so, a standard practice is to request information from agencies and curate, analyse and summarise it for presenting to the principal. This creates accountability designed to speed up results. But it also creates strict reporting processes, and (sometimes)-burdensome workloads for departments and ministries. During covid-19, with administrative capacity stretched to the limit, an over-zealous reporting regime could endanger rather than enhance the crisis response.

Instead of adding pressure on subordinate entities to report frequently, delivery units should focus on listening. The unit should get immersed in the work of relevant departments and agencies, take part in relevant meetings, listen to what is happening and understand swiftly where the bottlenecks are.

Armed with this real understanding, the delivery unit can escalate problems and quickly mobilise authority and resources to resolve them. This could be making sure that money is released to pay for training of contact tracers; releasing deliveries of PPE; making sure the right agencies are represented in an economic stimulus team, or flagging problems with public messaging.

Be a facilitator of change, not a change actor

The sheer scale and speed of covid-19 means that delivery unit staff may need to roll up their sleeves and provide an extra pair of hands to help crisis teams get urgent things done. But they should be cautious about losing their helicopter perspective – the ability to look at the bigger picture, spot problems and then solve them. At worst, sharp-elbowed delivery unit staff may actually make the difficult task of managing multiple teams during a crisis even harder, by confusing people in a team, or other agencies and departments, who is in charge. While flexible and decentralised decision-making is important in a crisis, one of its challenges is coordination and cooperation at multiple levels of government. This includes coordination across the national ministries, departments, crisis teams, but also coordination with other levels of regional, federal, or local governments.

Delivery unit focus should be on how to facilitate change for the already existing structures, not on doing the work themselves. Many delivery unit’s work this way already, but during crises it is more important than ever.

Be a catalyst for learning and problem solving

One of the things that delivery units can do well is gather information about how the system works and make it more efficient. This can be a huge asset during the current crisis. Covid-19 requires continual learning and adaptation of policies based on new incoming information. This may be scientific evidence about containing the virus, or policy evidence about types of lockdown, compliance, or economic recovery. Countries may see multiple waves of the virus and learning from the previous waves or from other countries could improve the response in subsequent stages.

Delivery units can be a catalyst for this learning in at least three ways:

First, as already mentioned, the units can use their more traditional tools to identify the problems – what does not work –by channelling authority and resources. 

Second, delivery units could play an evidence-brokering role to connect leaders to national and other global evidence repositories. Some countries already have teams dedicating to generating the evidence, but this needs to be translated for policy-relevant questions.

Third, they can use the existing channels as described above, to gather information about the success – what is working – and feed that information back into the delivery system. In our current work with governments during Covid, we have seen multiple requests to help decision-makers access what works and in what contexts. The need to learn fast is acute. Countries want to learn from what is working in each region that implements different policies, in neighbouring countries, but also in countries that seem to perform well. This exercise is an important one, and it is not as easy as summarising the policies in other geographies. The real work is to place those policies in context and synthesise lessons to help decision-makers understand different variables and how to apply them to their own context.

The experience with covid-19 has shown that we are dealing with a crisis that is multidimensional – in time, areas of focus, and types of stakeholders. This requires a horizontal approach that is able to capture and flexibly coordinate responses to rapidly emerging problems. As with any crisis, most structures tend to revert to what they are familiar with instead of learning new ways of working under sometimes-extreme pressure. While acknowledging how useful the mandate and some of the tools and protocols of delivery units can be, a shift in the traditional modus operandi from master to servant can help them play a truly transformative role in this unprecedented crisis.

Alexandra Nastase is a senior specialist in Public Sector Governance. She advised governments and international organisations on the design and evaluation of delivery units in Europe and South Asia.

Peter Harrington is a Principal Consultant and leads OPM’s Energy portfolio. He has advised delivery units in Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Liberia, Albania, Honduras, Ethiopia and South Africa.