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The Pandemic and Federalism: Transparency and Accountability to Improve the Response of the Whole Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
October 24, 2021

COVID-19 is not just a health, humanitarian, socioeconomic or educational crisis; it is a governance crisis, testing the resilience of governance systems and institutions during the pandemic. As the United Nations Development Program warns, the consequences of the lack of transparency and accountability are being felt not only across in healthcare service delivery, policymaking, procurement practices and the management health funds, but also on governance systems overall, undermining the effectiveness of response and recovery measures to the crisis.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), it is imperative to establish mechanisms that, on the one hand, provide greater guarantees that public funds reach the intended people, are used for their intended purposes, help guarantee the integrity of the programs and address the risks of corruption and fraud. But on the other hand, it is equally important to evaluate decisionmaking processes, because as the media has documented, the coronavirus pandemic affected almost every nation in the world, with results as variable as the response of each government. COVID-19 exposed both the strengths and weaknesses of the kind of institutional capacities that are considered essential in crisis situations.

In the first case, the effects of COVID-19 are exacerbated because the lack of transparency and accountability not only undermines responses to the crisis, but also its consequences affect people’s access to valuable vital resources, such as equipment and medical services. Corruption also aggravates the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19, distorting the economic recovery and stimulus measures.

Crises offer numerous opportunities for corrupt actors to take advantage of emergencies for their own benefit as decisionmaking and resource allocation processes are subject to greater discretion. Due to the urgent need to face the crisis in order to gain speed and flexibility in responding to COVID-19, some countries have relaxed the safeguards of transparency, monitoring and accountability mechanisms, such as compliance of regulations, procurement practices and open access to data. There has also been a tendency to withhold information and suspend measures designed to promote multi-stakeholder participation in various governance processes.

In the second case, the lack of coordination in national crises such as COVID-19 condemns to failure many of the efforts that government agencies carry out every day on different fronts. Many of the actions do not produce the desired effect, precisely because there is no unified national response that gives them meaning and coherence, causing the waste of public funds and the increase in the rates of contagion, disease and mortality. Because we cannot say that there is coordination, when each government agency does what it can and how it can, and many times without the necessary skills and resources to do so.

Federal systems have the opportunity to evaluate and improve their decentralized governance system, which implies examining the key actions that governments at different levels have taken to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but above all, the effectiveness of the intergovernmental coordination, because it is a national crisis that requires a unified response. In Dhruv Khullar’s article “The struggle to define long COVID”, recently published in The New Yorker, there is a phrase that refers to the integrity of the health system which, we can adapt to refer to collective responsibility in these moments of crisis: If the governance system decentralized is the edifice of federalism, then COVID-19 is an earthquake. We’re all responsible for holding the structure together.

Donald F. Kettl, professor emeritus and former dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, points out that a look around the globe reveals that the most successful nations were those with a strong national hand steering policy, with an equally strong engagement of local governments in partnership toward a national policy. Media accounts of federal systems responses to the coronavirus crisis around the world have exposed the contrasting performance of federal, state and local governments, either individually or collectively. Accountability, in this sense, should include the establishment of mechanisms to compile at the national level what states and their cities have learned in managing the crisis.

Enabled by globalization, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to mutate and spread as fast and as far as possible so it is urgent to incorporate the lessons of the first waves. Among the lessons, it highlights the importance of collecting and analyzing adequate and reliable data that can inform decision-making and future preparation, and allow changes along the way in response to the findings. Transparency and accountability are key elements in pandemic response and recovery priorities including support to health systems; crisis management and response; and evaluation and response to social and economic impact needs; the lack of them deteriorates trust in government and compromises the possibilities of managing a crisis with very long-term consequences.

Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico. He co-founder and Vice President since 2014, of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS). He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT. He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias and LinkedIn @ http://linkedin.com/in/mauricio-covarrubias-2b49bb57

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