Responding to Covid-19, a failure of governance? 

Responding to Covid-19, a failure of governance? 

John Holmwood

The UK Government’s response to Covid-19 has elicited bafflement on the part of many commentators. It is now widely agreed that the government set off on the wrong foot with a strategy that seriously misjudged the risks of the pandemic. This was so notwithstanding the warnings from WHO and advice from the leaders of other countries. The strategy has changed, yet there now seems to be a marked failure of delivery.

A new theatre of crisis has emerged around daily press briefings. First, there is an authoritative announcement of a new target with all the weight of central government on display, of a minister flanked by scientific advisers backed by a display of the national flag. This is then followed by embarrassing admissions that the targets have not been met – whether that is of the delivery of personal protective equipment to NHS staff, carers, and other frontline workers, or of testing kits, and, as is emerging, of the Chancellor’s measures to support workers. This is then followed by excuses and the setting of new targets. The excuses quickly fall apart when those held up as responsible for bottlenecks declare that they have not even been contacted?

So what exactly is going on? Might it indicate a deeper problem of governance?

A number of commentators have spoken of the crisis as indicating a failure of neo-liberalism, but these are high level arguments which are not spelled out except as a broad aspect of public policy, the end of austerity and the re-discovery of society. But what does neo-liberalism look like on the ground and how does it disrupt what we might call the ‘supply-chain of governance’.

Back in 2011 then Prime Minister, David Cameron re-launched his ‘Big Society’. Britain, he argued,  needed a ‘social recovery to mend a broken society’. He went on, ’first of all, we have got to devolve more power to local government, and beyond local government, so people can actually do more and take more power. Secondly, we have got to open up public services, make them less monolithic, say to people: if you want to start up new schools, you can.’

In fact, the Big Society was about disempowering local government. Not only were budgets severely reduced, but also the functions and powers of local government were reduced with a commensurate appropriation of powers to central government. This accelerated an earlier process under New Labour where the involvement of local government had been removed from the delivery of services. At best, they are purchasers of services, rather than suppliers of them. ’Supply’ been dispersed to different providers, some private for-profit, others charitable and voluntary organisations. More fundamental, however, has been the outsourcing of the management of those arrangements.

Let me use one example, that of schooling, still the largest area of council spend. Most publicly-funded schools were maintained through local education authorities. The latter provided administrative and curriculum support, as well as having oversight across a relatively contained local area where there were similarly organised services for looked after children, youth services and the like. These were also managed under local democratic accountability.

However, with the acceleration of the government’s academies programme after 2010, close to three-quarters of all publicly-funded secondary schools are now outside local authority responsibility. The schools are organised through multi-academy trusts, many covering a geographical region many miles apart and not contiguous with a single local authority area. Support is provided by separate consultancies and bought in from private providers. The Department for Education is the final authority (together with its agencies like Ofsted, and the Teacher Regulation Agency), but ‘official’ functions at the Department – for example, the schools improvement programme – are also outsourced to private consultancies. The arrangements are both centralised and dispersed with weak intermediate coordination.

While arrangements for providing teaching for the children of key workers and for continuing free school meals have not been very high profile issues, compared with testing for infection by the virus, say, they remain fundamental to the overall resilience of the response to Covid-19. This situation is repeated across all areas of the delivery of what is deemed essential support. Paul Hunter, for example, has written of the dismantling of the public laboratory system.

What is at issue is not only capacity, it is also coordination and control. In the language of new public management, bureaucractic governance has been replaced by networked governance. Or as Stephen Ball (2011) puts it, ‘hierarchy’ has been replaced by ‘heterarchy’ and new technologies of governance, which “replace[s] some bureaucratic and administrative structures and relationships with a system of organization replete with overlap, multiplicity, mixed ascendancy and/or divergent-but-coexistent patterns of relation” (2011: 148). For Ball, this also allows the proliferation of new policy actors – consultants and self-organised groups representing new entities, as well as new state agencies – which blur the distinction between public and private sector.

The multiplicity of agents and the loose arrangements among them represents a considerable increase in complexity. This includes a multiplicity of coordinating nodes and a lack of integration across different services. Stephen Ball argues that they often also involve considerable “stumbling and blundering”, before going on to say, in the perspective of its advocates, that too may be positive, insofar as such arrangements are “more likely to give bad decisions a second chance to be rectified” (2011:148).

The advocates of networked governance celebrate its capacity for innovation and its dynamism. I am sceptical at the best of times. In normal circumstances, the lack of intermediate oversight makes the organisation of services fragile and inconsistent, at the same time as creating the very opposite of what was intended, namely a centralisation of power. In a time of major crisis, as we are discovering to our cost, networked governance provides multiple points of failure and a centralised power without the capacity to direct.

The response of Public Health England is called ‘bureaucratic’ in the press, because it represents central organisation, but what is lacking is the very defining characteristic of a bureaucracy, namely, a systematic ability to connect to local centres where policy can be delivered. This is what is repeated across all current core areas of public concern precisely because hierarchical governance has been dismantled and local authorities have been removed as centres of local coordination across different services which, in a time of crisis, need to be connected. If the problem was ‘bureaucracy’ then we would be witnessing similar problems in Germany, not evidence of successful delivery.

This is precisely the drama that is being played out daily in the only theatre that remains open –  the political theatre of daily briefings. There is a simulacrum of control and organisation against a reality of failure. For a long time, we have heard the mantra that what matters is ‘outcomes’ not ‘structures’. We are discovering that in a crisis not only does society matter, so, too, do structures.

Ball, Stephen (2011) ‘Academies, policy networks and governance’ in Helen M. Gunter (ed) The State and Education Policy: The Academies Programme, London: Continuum.


John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. With Therese O’Toole, he is the author of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair, Bristol: Policy Press, 2017).