Weathering public sector's four waves of the corona crisis

01 June 2020 6 min. read

Even as Australia flattens the first Covid-19 curve, public value organisations are facing further waves of disruption. In a new report, experts from Cube Group outline how public sector institutions can successfully navigate the changes. Lead author Tom Craven explains.

Australia’s immediate response to the pandemic-induced downturn has been as effective as any in the world. However, the pandemic will create not just one wave of service delivery challenges, but four. While these waves will be interrelated and likely overlap, each will have a distinct driver:

  • An immediate response to tackle Covid-19 and to maintain essential services while social distancing restrictions are in place;
  • An inevitable backlog from less-urgent services delayed as part of the mitigation effort;
  • Rising complexity and complications due to missed opportunities to intervene early or manage ongoing problems, and underlying problems escalating;
  • Fallout from the economic and social damage to individuals, families and communities.

The four waves

Public purpose organisations have been shoring up the most urgent services for the first wave, continuing face-to-face interactions where necessary and safe to do so, while quickly transitioning other processes to remote interactions. Their achievements have been remarkable. The health system has generated a dramatic increase in capacity to treat Covid-19 patients and swift adoption of telehealth is allowing many people to receive care without attending a hospital or GP clinic.

In similar fashion, courts are expanding video links and streamlining case processes so that urgent matters can continue. And online educational resources are helping children learn from home.

And yet, even as we continue to come to grips with immediate challenges of service delivery in a Covid-19 environment, the next wave of short to medium-term challenges will soon be upon us. Public purpose leaders across all sectors need to prepare now not only to withstand a crisis, but to lead our community from response through recovery.

Clearing the backlog

We are all now acutely aware of just how many of the essential public services that keep our society and economy moving involve face-to-face interactions; from court proceedings to transport regulation, prisons to disability assessments, health clinics to housing applications – to name but a few.

Efforts to deliver services in new ways during the Covid-19 crisis, however dramatic, have (so far) been limited to processes and services of the highest urgency. But that doesn’t mean the need for less urgent interactions goes away. A three-month suspension of services in the state of Victoria alone could mean a backlog of up to:

  • 150,000 criminal matters in the Magistrates’ Court alone;
  • 20,000 new driver licence applications to VicRoads; and
  • 750,000 appointments at specialist clinics in public hospitals.

Simply returning to business as usual will mean major delays and ballooning wait times, hampering efforts to get the economy and public services moving again. For some, it may mean levels of demand that overwhelm processes entirely.

Getting through this overwhelming backlog will require major – and, at times, radical – step-changes in process efficiencies, eliminating low-value functions and delivering value more quickly and effectively.

How to manage public services through the waves of the COVID-19 crisis

Managing rising complication and complexity

Much of the expansion of health system capacity and the public purpose sectors’ participation in social distancing has come at the expense of important, non-urgent services. But not urgent does not mean not important. The mark of a strong service system is its ability to invest in important non-urgent services that intervene early, manage ongoing risks and issues, and prevent problems from arising or escalating.

Non-urgent health services addressing chronic disease, child and family health, health promotion, and mental wellbeing and resilience have all been substantially reduced to free-up system capacity and reduce face-to-face interactions. The same is true in child and family welfare services, ageing and disability care, support for at-risk youth or adults, educational support, and more. The result will be increased prevalence and complexity of health and wellbeing issues.

For other public services, public education, communication and proactive issues management play a similar role in reducing the need for more complex, intensive and costly services in the future. These actions have (rightly) been de-prioritised during the crisis, but this comes with a future cost.

Managing this wave of demand is a core part of the recovery journey.

Recovering from deep social and economic damage

Major components of our nation’s social and economic life have been disrupted by the response to Covid-19 and will continue to be even as restrictions are gradually lifted. Early estimates suggest up to 3 million Australians could be out of work – a quarter of the Australian workforce. Poverty and welfare dependency levels will rise dramatically.

The link between disasters or economic recessions and social challenges is widely recognised. Family violence, child abuse, abuse of alcohol and drugs, chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease, mental illness and suicide, family breakdown, poverty and other social challenges are all known to rise during and after times of crisis. These effects are likely to be exacerbated by the inability to access services or supports during the crisis.

Federal and state governments are committed to major spending programs to lead the recovery. Public value organisations must take this opportunity to intervene early, fill the missing middle in social services, and support the recovery of all Australians as we rebuild our economic, social and community life.