Five Policy Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic in Ireland

Senior Analyst at Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council* (www.nesc.ie) writes here in a personal capacity about lessons we can learn from the outbreak of COVID-19.

Dr Cathal FitzGerald

Policy analysis can be a cold-eyed pursuit, and to an extent it must be. Objectivity and a certain detachment are required to properly extract generalisable findings. How then should a devastating event such as the Covid-19 pandemic be analysed for policy lessons? And isn’t it simply too soon? Aren’t there aspects still enveloped in controversy and political barbed-wire? Over the past year, Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has analysed the pandemic to extract lessons for public policy. You can find the report here.

Stepping back to consider national and regional responses to disasters and pandemics provided the starting point. A review of over fifty publications on these topics yielded objective guidance and four key characteristics of an effective response: understanding vulnerability more completely; leading decisively, flexibly, and openly; communicating and coordinating effectively; and mobilising all necessary resources.

Next, turning specifically to Ireland’s experience, rather than it being too soon for a review we found that – given that it is more than two years since the pandemic began – parts of the public policy system were already beginning to forget precisely what it was like as the crisis emerged, and how their response was shaped and decided upon. On the politics, it was clear from the outset that the research was not a performance assessment. There was no scope or attempt to perform a full assessment of public policy during the pandemic. Such an evaluation will likely be undertaken elsewhere.

Given the complexity of the pandemic and the resulting number of policy changes and innovations, there were myriad potential developments in Ireland to examine and learn from. We purposely selected examples based on their likely ability to generate guidance for policy. We investigated data analytics activity, in particular, work on behaviour; problem-solving structures introduced during the pandemic; economic safeguards; and the role of community and voluntary actors. And we learned a lot: five overarching lessons for public policy in total.

Lesson One is that vulnerability is complex and context-specific, and that we must work hard to pinpoint and manage it.  During Covid-19, Ireland’s policy system invested considerable effort and resources to address vulnerability. For example, the Community Call programme linked local and national government with the community and voluntary sectors to provide support to the most vulnerable. Community Call shows the effort required to respond to the complex and, in many respects, hidden nature of vulnerability. It is not surprising that previously unknown pockets of isolation and disadvantage came to light.

Looking ahead, the State can support local, bottom-up exercises, often driven by community groups and experts to pinpoint vulnerabilities. This needs to be then linked to national level. And responding to revealed vulnerabilities requires resources. Some countries have established buffer capacity, and the policy system should now consider security of supply and determine where excess capacity is needed and sensible. The greater use of data can allow more targeting of supports to ensure that the most vulnerable receive them and to maximise the impact of public investment.

Lesson Two is that deep engagement with stakeholders and experts has been critical and needs to continue.  When the pandemic emerged, the policy-system engaged with experts in a range of fields: employers, industry associations, trade unions, and other stakeholders. This helped frame the guidance and rules, and get greater clarity about impact. Representative organisations were directly involved in discussions around measures to protect vulnerable firms and workers. This contributed to their effectiveness because they were underpinned by consensus, and stakeholders actively championed new initiatives. This collaboration deepened as attention focused on safely re-opening the economy and society. While this revived form of tripartite policy interaction was effective in dealing with labour market issues during the crisis, the type of societal consensus and trust necessary to address other complex challenges requires a more inclusive form of social dialogue.

Lesson Three is that the real-time data-gathering and analytics capability and infrastructure was key to the policy response, and this work should now be used to support decision-making in other areas. From the onset of the pandemic, the State had a significant data and research resource which helped guide its decision-making and actions. The addition of more aggregate data and behavioural analytics helped policymakers better understand how the disease and the population were behaving, and the relationship between them.

For example, data on the aggregate volume of internet searches for terms such as ‘covid test’, ‘common cold’, ‘cough’, and ‘fever’, provided value as potential early indicators of a disease peak. In another example, a new behavioural study provided a more complete, real-time picture of how people were responding, as well as their attitudes to restrictions, what was working well, and what might need to be adjusted at a given point in time. The systematic use of aggregate empirical and behavioural data in public policy has the potential to add enormous value in complex policy areas such as housing or climate action policy, so care should be taken about dismantling processes and infrastructure that have been put in place.

Lesson Four is that data governance, privacy, access, confidentiality, and sharing issues must be prioritised and addressed with urgency.  Real-time evidence and data can transform policymaking, but the policy system must address some well-known challenges and risks. Transparency and inclusion are key, and we must ensure that the policy world has fully adapted to the data world.

Lesson Five is that the policy system developed many means of listening to citizens, stakeholders and experts, and that these provide insights for how to further build trust in government.  Steps were taken during the pandemic to enhance communication and bolster trust. Within days of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Ireland, a dedicated Crisis Communications Group was established. Communications were informed by deep engagement with stakeholders and experts, and data and behavioural analytics work. There was also evidence of good practice emerging in relation to multilingual and more readable crisis communication. These steps could be beneficial as States continue to be exposed to emergencies. Policymakers must improve their capacity to listen actively, and to communicate clearly. They must also work to ensure their decisions deliver, and are seen to deliver, for society.

One final word based on our analysis: Ireland’s response to the pandemic revealed a willingness to step-in, flexibility, and agility in the policy system. If we truly want to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic in a manner which helps with the next crisis, these qualities must be fostered and supported in the policy system outside of crisis-periods.

*The Council was established in 1973 and advises Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) on strategic policy issues relating to sustainable economic, social, and environmental development in Ireland.