During periods of crisis we often struggle to interpret and understand the impacts hitting us. To make sense of our future environment, we need a level of predictability that is understandably difficult to establish amid the pervasive uncertainty.

Generally speaking, our society looks to respond to periods of drastic change or crisis by building in mechanisms that give us some degree of control or certainty. To help public sector departments navigate this process, we’ve developed a structured framework of “possible futures” to bring the implications and potential outcomes of each scenario into context.

Unfolding realities

Applied to the unfolding realities of the pandemic, this can help us to understand the impacts on the trajectory of the contagion and related economic recovery curve. Doing so can help our governments and corporations to shape their business continuity and resilience planning.

This raises many questions from a psychological perspective: how are we going to react as a society? What are the new societal norms likely to be? How do we prepare for the longer-term impact of COVID-19? We want to go back to our “normal” environment – but now, several months in, it’s clear that fundamental changes have taken place. The pandemic has undoubtedly made people more aware of the role government plays in their lives. So, against this backdrop, what is the new normal?

One thing is for sure: we’re in uncharted territory, with a great deal of speculation and crystal ball-gazing going on and various predictions, good and bad, being made about economic recovery timelines and societal responses.

A structured crisis management framework

What does our structured crisis management framework tell us? We’ve identified four future pathways based on disease progression and the way our society responds to it. As the chart shows, these range from rapid remission to an extreme situation of prolonged chaos.

Disease progression and societal response

Although there is no one right path, our research has looked at current market impacts around the globe and also reviewed historical responses to global pandemics. The application of the scenarios can be used to start to imagine and invent our future based on the impacts within a particular region or nation.

Unpacking the scenarios

Let’s take a minute to unpack each scenario and what it could mean:

  • Rapid remission

    The disease is contained and life returns to normal swiftly. Government measures work quickly to stabilize the economy.

  • Flattened curve

    The rate of infections is slowed but does not go into remission. The economy shrinks in near permanent ways. Society bends but does not break, pulling together to sustain government measures.

  • Cyclical outbreaks

    Infections are controlled in past locations but spread to new hot spots and rebound in old. Patience wears thin with social distancing, opening societal fissures.

  • Prolonged chaos

    Effects to control the virus seem useless. Governments and societies are strained to breaking point. The economy is limited to necessities only and inflation soars.

As government organizations seek to emerge stronger into a post-lockdown future, we believe their strategic planning will need to take account of some fundamental shifts in attitudes and ways of interaction that will have major impacts on their workforce, customer growth and operations/systems resilience.

By way of example, let’s take a look at scenario three – Cyclical outbreaks – and assume there are some regional spikes in infection rates in different provinces and cities. How should you prepare your business resilience and contingency planning to address such a scenario?

Impacts for operations and workforce

First, operations and workforce. If you are a national parcel distribution company or a government benefits agency with operations across Canada, how could you divert your processing if one area of the country spiked with an outbreak?

Or what about healthcare? Faced with the same scenario, public health departments might have to create resilience in their supply chain operations to re-divert urgently needed resources into the affected area and revisit rationing strategies elsewhere to maintain availability and continuity of supply.

In terms of workforce, the key steps to take under this scenario would include creating region-based strategies for workforce responses and expanding communications strategies to reinforce one-company messages. You should also invest in the longer-term mental health of your workers as the ongoing uncertainty and disruption might impact your team.

Digital’s critical importance

We’ve developed similar steps for organizations to take under all four scenarios. But whatever happens from here, the pandemic has decisively brought home the critical importance of digital infrastructure for all organizations. Some have had to stagger work hours due to limitations in accessing critical systems. Digital solutions and connectivity have arguably helped us all to maintain our critical operations, education and social connectivity.

For government organizations, whose people play such a vital role in dealing with the impacts of COVID-19, it’s clearly essential to ensure IT remains an enabler. Now, more than ever, we need infrastructure investments to advance our digital and IT solutions.

Outmanoeuvring uncertainty

The normal as we knew it in early March 2020 seems like a different world. And it’s increasingly obvious that we’re not going back there. This makes it imperative that we understand the different scenarios for our future, so we can plan out the right responses.

Some kind of “normal” will ultimately emerge, and government departments, in common with the rest of society, will have to be ready for it. To help them do this, we’ve developed a practical action guide for outmanoeuvring uncertainty, called “Public service for a new era.”

In it we highlight what departments need to do in the Now - and also what they need to do Next to emerge stronger. As organizations plan for a post-lockdown future, the key is that they apply the concepts of resilience, versatility and sustainability to inform their strategic planning, while also taking account of profound shifts in attitude and ways of interacting.

Dave Telka

Managing Director – Strategy & Consulting, Public Service, Canada

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