Policymaking in the age of crisis

L-r: Dr Ng Shin Wei, Sofia Castelo and Dr Matt Benson, during the Q&A session of the webinar

Here are highlights from our Earth Week webinar on Adaptive Policymaking in the Age of Crisis, hosted by Think City Institute.

The recent outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities and contradictions of globalisation, showing how little we have prepared for the crisis. It is a wake up call for everyone to realise that we are living in an ‘age of crisis’.

The question in our minds: how are we so utterly unprepared? For example, medical and protections items were undeniably in short supply, creating panic and endangering lives. The last thing we want during a pandemic is panic from the public.

Dr Matt Benson (file pic)

Dr Matt Benson, programme director at Think City stated that adaptive policymaking — that is flexible and responsive — is crucial in order to overcome the crisis. Lessons can be gained from the Covid-19 crisis for adapting to short, medium and long term environmental and climate crises.

“We have seen [that Covid-19] exposes the globalisation system (the Western democracies) in some ways, are unprepared with changes and crisis. As a result, we now have half of the world in lockdown or some form of confinement”, said Benson.

To put into perspective  how much the world has turned upside down, oil prices are at negative — an unprecedented event. Oil production has reached a point where there is no longer storage available and people have to be paid to take the oil.

The maps above show the nitrogen dioxide levels in Malaysia during 18 March – 13 April, 2019 (top) and the same period in 2020 (bottom)

On top of that, Think City’s Analytics team has shown the dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide and pollutant emissions across Peninsular Malaysia. This is happening all over the world. Data also suggests land temperature has dropped with ‘help’ from the pandemic.

Innovations are now something to be focused on. For example, Daily Mail in UK published an article about Italian engineers using creating ventilators for hospitals using 3D printing and snorkelling masks.

Benson also states that the tendency to use war metaphor is not the way to respond to the crisis. It is only useful in mobilising and rallying people around short-term external threats.

“What is really required is a system with nimbleness and mobility, that can identify threats fast and provide a swift response. It can take feedback that is not compromised by a hierarchical structure and culture of caution,” added Benson.

Dr Matt Benson presenting indicators for adaptive policymaking (still)

Below are the instruments needed in adaptive policy making:

  1. Adaptive policy instruments
    • Risk management mindset
    • Recognises differential impacts
    • Devolving power to lower levels when necessary
    • Takes an institutional learning perspective
  2. Reflective leadership
    • Ability to understand complexity
    • Able to use diverse and even divergent views to make better decisions
    • Is reflective of their personal and social values
    • Comfortable managing top-down and bottom-up
  3. Communicate and control
    • Opposite of command and control
    • Mobilisation of society through effective communication strategies
    • Practical modalities to work with different stakeholders
    • Building trust with local leaders to bring about behavioural change
  4. Short circuits
    • Converging mini-crises could trigger larger systemic crises
    • Spiralling circumstances may need to be short-circuited
    • Manifests itself as a sudden change or even reversal of policy
    • Requires strong strategic communication
  5. Critical supply chain perspective
    • A systems approach to understanding the connection between points of production and consumption.
    • Seeks to build resilience and redundancy into supply chains
    • Lower food miles, self-sufficiency and regional priorities
  6. Makeshifting
    • Making do with what you have around you to solve a problem
    • Assembling, disassembling and reassembling programmes and procedures
    • With limited time and resources, makeshift solutions that require using bits of existing legislation and regulation
    • A mental framework that is reflected in other behaviours
  7. Re-gearing
    • Changing realities and psychologies will lead to cultural shifts in the ‘new norm’
    • Re-gearing of many institutions and businesses
    • New purposes will need to be found for buildings, assets, cruise liners and aircraft
    • Will be experimental
  8. Orbital synchronicity
    • In crisis our individual and institutional worlds (orbits) need to be synchronised
    • Working in collaborative environments and creating large networks fast
    • Pulling to separated (possibly opposing) systems in single unified (or synchronised) arrangements

Climate change faces the same issues where it needs adaptive policymaking, as the threats facing us in climate change are nothing new and yet policies remain the same. We need to adapt in order to come up with better policies.

Still from webinar

Dr Ng Shin Wei from Penang Green Council said that current policymaking is unsuitable for longer term risks, which are yet to be determined. These policies are largely based on analysis of previous trends.

“It is focused in rigid policymaking decision. What it means is, for example, the government has to follow certain standard operating procedures that are made 15-20 years ago. They are not catered to making decisions for future crisis and threats.”

“Our policymaking is not mitigation-focused. Yes, we have the plan to reduce CO2, but it is not fast enough. On top of that, we also lack contingency plans. What if t another pandemic strikes? Lacking contingency plans will surely worsen things, and this is why it is important to have one before any crisis happens again.

Working in silos also contributes to unpreparedness of our policymaking decisions. There is limited communication between departments which tend to stay within their own respective fields, when they should be communicating to help each other in making decision on policies.

Creating Certainties for Future

How we should face and treat climate risks:

Mitigate: Whatever we are doing, make sure we are aiming for the best scenario. Try to urge others in neighbouring regions to work with us in investing transformation. Also we, need clear risks assessment for the regions involved.

Build Resilience: Create plans and adapt strategies for interdependent impacts. Improve regional coorperation because a region on itself will not be sufficient to overcome the crisis.

Contingency Plan: Necessary to deal with future threats. We also need systematic monitoring of tipping points.

Adaptive policymaking can create more certainties in the face of an uncertain future. With the right amount of effort, we can take lessons from this pandemic to help us cope for future crises.

Written by Adlan Farhan, Think City’s  Brand and Communications intern with a background in journalism.

For more information, do read this policy paper co-authored by Dr Matt Benson and Dr Shahridan Faiez of Think City Institute: Issue 3: Reflexivity in the Age of Pandemia: Adaptive Policy Making and the COVID-19 Crisis 

Watch the archival footage of the webinar here: