Institutions for integration and planning – key lessons learned & impact of COVID-19

Speaking points kick-off presentation by Louis Meuleman at the UNDESA webinar on integrating the 2030 agenda into national plans and strategies:

14 May 2020

Integrating the 2030 Agenda into national plans and strategies: Considering COVID-19 response and recovery

Topic 4: Institutions for integration and planning – key lessons learned

Kick-off 10 min

  • Some context before I start:
    • I am in the first place a practitioner, having worked for almost 40 years in public-sector organisations, at subnational, national and European level, and this was always on comprehensive planning or implementation. But I am also an academic.
    • As member and currently vice-chair of CEPA I have coordinated our messages to this year’s HLPF theme, which are online. They cover the whole range of public administration and governance issues. Quality of institutions to deliver the SDGs has been the focus of the Committee since 2015.
  • I will cluster my reflections around the three guiding questions.

What institutional innovations can help drive deeper integration of the SDGs?

  • COVID-19 has been an equalizer: all governments switched to central command & control style of governance. For some that was a big change, for others not. The surprise, and that is a first lesson learned, is that such a sudden switch was possible. In other words: Big transformation are possible. That’s good to know. We might need to rely on disaster management more often in the future than we would like to think.
  • So the new normal will in any case include formal and central institutions. But at the same time, integration/mainstreaming of the SDGs remains contextual. There are almost no best practices – the exception is maybe that the institutional coordination should be with the PM office. But even that may not be necessary if, as in Finland, the PM is not the super boss but the number one among her peers.
  • Even a national sustainable development plan can have very different shapes. It can be a classical strategic plan of 200 pages. But strategy can also be seen as a permanent learning process. The focus is then on strategizing, not on planning.
  • The point is that each national culture and tradition has a kind of natural preference for a specific type of institutional framework. In more hierarchical cultures, public institutions are formal, legal and/or centralised. In such cultures, most officers in ministries have studied law. In Germany, successful ministers are the ones who produce the most laws. In France the culture is more centralized: Serious decisions should come from Paris.
  • In more market-oriented cultures, public institutions are small and focused on efficiency. In network cultures, institutions tend to be informal and based on trust. In reality mixed forms mostly appear.
  • What I want to say is that I do not believe in best practices that apply everywhere. There is also no empirical evidence that they exist – rather that they don’t. Still, almost all of us use the term ‘best practice’ as if it is something real.
  • One rule of thumb might be that if your current approach is not working, then try something from another approach without completely switching to it. It is important that any institutional setting for the SDGs is similar enough to the existing way of organizing things, to keep ownership, and different enough to make innovation possible.
  • In order to speed up the implementation of the SDGs, we need, beyond crisis management, to increase the number and scope of fast-track policy and institutional innovations, without replacing existing incremental innovation. COVID-19 has shown that fast-track change in policy, governance and administrative organization is possible beyond what we have imagined so far.
  • Fast-track SDG implementation cannot be organised without taking risks. It is impossible without trial and error, and without failure. This we need to accept. But risk-taking is not exactly a popular issue in public sector organisations. So we need institutional innovation that rewards some level of failure instead of punishing. I have heard about research organisations who have as target a failure rate of not less than 5%. Might make sense. Not for the Ministry of Justice, though.
  • One area where we might be able to speed things up without too much risk is multilevel governance.
  • Top-down and bottom-up relations between levels of government are both characterised by slow transfer of innovative ideas. A European law, for example on waste recycling, can take 7 years to reach the local level where it needs implemented.
  • For implementation of SDG issues, which are complex, urgent and relate to several administrative levels, we need to add a third approach and thus establish a three-speed gearbox for SDG multilevel governance.
  • This third approach is ‘real-time’ collaborative multilevel governance. It consists of mechanisms that bring together representatives of all relevant levels of administration to implement specific SDG challenges.
  • It is not an exotic idea, it exists in e.g. the Netherlands already. It may be more difficult in certain cultural settings. But I think it has to be tried.


What are some of the first, rapid lessons from the ground as countries respond to the COVID-19 crisis?

  • One early lesson is that effective public governance remains contextualized. Big disasters and other disruptions can be equalizers, and some governments will try to maintain a state of emergency longer than necessary. But real societal transformation needs to have its foundation on peoples values, traditions and history, which is different in different countries.
  • Another lesson is about the rediscovery of the public sector. We have seen that countries with a functioning public sector that caters for essential health services for all are better equipped to deal with the pandemic than others who have privatized health care. COVID-19 has shown that countries who went too far in this respect, had to beg other countries to help them with intensive care hospital beds and other medical equipment.
  • Furthermore, long-term thinking is typically lacking in privatized versions of what used to be public tasks. Foresight teams and independent advisory councils preparing governments for ‘thinking the unthinkable’ have been abolished in several countries.
  • As the economist Mariana Mazzucato says, the whole public sector has suffered under the impact of economic theories that promoted small and efficient, but often ineffective government, and that have resulted in privatization of vital public functions such as health care in many countries.
  • So, the lesson is that we need to reassert the central role of an effective, responsive and capable public sector in responding to society’s needs, building resilience and dealing with crises when they arise.
  • Part of this should be recognition that we need institutional support for health care workers and all the other people who are doing what we suddenly realise are critical jobs. Political scientists call them street-level bureaucrats, and they are the new heroes of this time. But they salaries are low and they can often not spend enough time to do their job adequately.
  • We also need institutional reform to focus on sustainable budgeting and financing. We cannot afford that Covid-19 stimulus funds support an unsustainable future. Taking the wrong decisions now will be worse than causing delays to achieve the SDGs. It could throw our progress years back, or even prevent a sustainable pathway for the foreseeable future. Emerging trends on sustainable financing, budgeting and procurement would be blocked.

 How can institutions be made more adaptive to shocks like the COVID-19 crisis?

 Adaptivity to shocks is based on resilience. The SDGs are a holistic concept in which all Goals are linked to each other and cannot be singled out. That is a systemic approach that will lead to more resilience in our societies, against shocks.

  • Public institutions’ first reaction to external shocks is normally the ‘turtle’. Close the windows and the doors, then your eyes, and hide. That’s logical because such institutions were not invented to be flexible, innovative, agile. They are there to keeps things as they are. To be reliable, predictable, stable.
  • I think that’s a good value. But not enough. During the COVID crisis we have seen remarkable public leadership and creative innovation. But for the next pandemic or other crisis we need to be able to combine stability with flexibility.
  • Adaptivity is much easier when you have access to IT infrastructure and tools. But we are seeing now that the already existing digital divide has increased since the outbreak of COVID-19. Many countries cannot continue public services during a crisis, because of the lack of IT tools and infrastructure.
  • To conclude, I am very happy with the re-discovery of the public sector and the critical importance of effective governance. But just like the economy, the public sector does not exist for itself. It exists to serve the needs of the people and to respect and protect planetary boundaries. For this, we need partnership between governments, private sector and civil society. But for such partnerships we need strong government.