COVID-19 has put intense pressure on governments around the world. Aside the tragic loss of life, the pandemic has also acted as a natural experiment in best-practice governance. We can learn from the variety of governmental responses in order to perform better when confronted by similar challenges.
There is, however, controversy about which lessons we should learn. Advocates of centralised government point to our experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand as proof that centralisation ensures efficiency and clarity. Meanwhile, advocates of decentralisation underline how important the semi-autonomy of states and cities has been in the United States, where clear federal co-ordination has been sorely lacking.
Mulgan argues that neither of these impulses is correct. Instead, the most successful responses to COVID-19 have been marked not by an entrenchment of hierarchy but by a willingness to work across it. He calls this “mesh governance”, which he defines as “an integration of multiple tiers, acting together, sharing data, lessons and insights.” Physical mesh combines vertical and horizontal links in order to make a system (whether in fabric or in a computer-based system) stronger.
He points to a number of examples of mesh governance, such as South Korea’s Central Crisis Management Committee (which is composed of representatives from both national ministries and large cities), Australia’s Council of Australian Governments (which brings together both national and state governments), and the UK’s now-defunct Government Regional Offices (which performed a similar function with different regions and cities).
According to Mulgan, mesh governance has a number of key features:
- 1) Support for relationships and networks – the central goal of mesh governance is not merely to establish meetings where different tiers of government are represented, but to foster genuinely trusting relationships between those different tiers. If individuals and groups from each tier can engage with each other and build informal networks, then it will be easier to co-ordinate formal machinery across hierarchies.
- 2) Co-ordinated vision and problem formation – in order to co-ordinate policy responses, it is crucial to first agree on what the problem being confronted is and what is likely to come next. With that shared vision, solution-oriented policy making becomes much smoother.
- 3) Combined problem-solving teams – having generated a shared vision, problem-solving teams composed of officials from across the hierarchy can build customised policy responses that draw on expertise from each tier and so are more likely to receive buy-in.
- 4) Integration of other civil society actors – mesh governance should engage actors from across civil society. Universities, think tanks, and advocacy organisations will also have invaluable expertise and experience, which they can contribute to ease the policy-creation and implementation process.
- 5) Combined curation of data – a difficulty for co-ordinated government responses is that the actors involved are often operating with different sources of information that occasionally point in different ways. Joint curation of data allows a more comprehensive and accurate data picture, which all actors can draw from together.
The merits of such an approach have already been seeded in most governments through the creation of joint task forces (often in a security or emergency context, like COBRA in the United Kingdom or the cross-agency co-operation found in Aotearoa’s National Crisis Management Centre). Mulgan argues it is now time for governments to build that co-operation not just across, but down.
Too much collaboration can be deeply damaging to productivity. But at an institutional level, we are still far from that point. Different tiers of government act in ways that are at best additive. Often they are contradictory. According to Mulgan, “With a good mesh structure in place, they can become multiplicative, becoming more than the sum of their parts.”