How the coronavirus pandemic can help good leaders to clean house

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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If the coronavirus death toll makes for grim reading, then the economic fallout is scarcely better. However, in the crisis’s wake comes the potential of an improved public sector, in an era where many dynamic leaders are constantly obstructed by incompetent and nefarious “deep states.”

The basic problem in all public sectors is the difficulty of measuring performance objectively. Performance in some jobs, such as judges or intelligence officers, is inherently hard to evaluate, while commercial gauges such as profits are inappropriate for public schools and hospitals.


This presents a considerable challenge for enterprising and honest leaders, as it makes it harder to hold people accountable, thereby engendering shirking and corruption within the civil service. If the number of incompetent and corrupt public sector employees reaches a critical mass, they can fashion an obstructive deep state, whereby the political leadership’s attempts to implement policies that serve the general interest are undermined by a civil service that prioritizes its own interests.

Occasionally, government leaders will be driven to drastic actions, such as when Georgia’s prime minister fired the entire traffic police force (numbering 30,000 officers) in 2005 due to their endemic corruption. But usually, the miscreants are smart enough to avoid egregious abuses of power, and so political leaders are ultimately held in check by the difficulty of objectively measuring performance.

However, crises can turn the tide back in favor of beleaguered leaders striving to make a difference, by making it dramatically easier to measure performance in many public sector jobs.

For example, while it is difficult to demonstrate a military general’s incompetence during peacetime, a war will likely expose their failings; this explains why the constant armed conflict that Britain faced during the 18th and 19th centuries led to a steady drop in purchased commissions and other damaging forms of corrupt appointments. This is why Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has become a standard adage in management circles.

In the case of the coronavirus, countries have differed widely in the effectiveness of their responses to the crisis, with some governments having their lack-of-preparedness and the incompetence among their ranks brutally exposed. In certain cases, fault lies at the feet of both leaders and their civil services, which makes for a generally pessimistic outlook after the crisis, as all sides will likely focus on blaming each other rather than enacting productive reforms.

But in the unique configuration of a good leader with an incompetent or corrupt deep state, the coronavirus may provide the leader with the data necessary to expose the civil service’s incompetence and/or corruption to impartial observers, thereby enabling the leader to finally clean house without being accused of mounting a coup or practicing self-serving clientelism.

The state-level leadership of several US states at present illustrate this mechanism. Many critical professions, most notably medical doctors, are subject to regulations that prevent them from being allowed to practice across state lines. Unofficially, the primary reason for these restrictions is to create market power for certain local stakeholders, be they those in charge of the licensing process, or the in-state physicians protected from external competition. The consumer almost surely loses, due to higher prices and diminished choice. A bold governor looking to drain the licensing swamp will face serious pushback from the entrenched beneficiaries, who will deploy complex medical and legal jargon against the non-specialist governor to avoid being held accountable.

While causing large amounts of human suffering, the coronavirus crisis has endowed governors with the political capital necessary to bulldoze these harmful licensing restrictions, as there is a medical personnel shortage that can only be alleviated by summoning extra-state practitioners. Upon the crisis’s conclusion, the deep state will eagerly look to reimpose the restrictions, but their case will be much harder now that the gravy train has been clearly exposed to the public.

However, in the case of US states and in the general case, one must remember the caveat that the political principals must themselves be of higher quality than their supporting civil service. In the event that they are both ineffective – where the low-quality leader might even be a partial cause of the low-quality civil service – then the cycle of poor leadership will persist.

Humans have a long history of seizing the opportunities that tragedies offer to reform their institutions for the better. This constructive form of opportunism should not be seen as an attempt to trivialize the distress associated with the original tragedy; rather, it is an attempt to make the best of a bad situation. The coronavirus pandemic has caused – and will continue to cause – massive suffering, but in the case of righteous leaders, it could assist them in overcoming persistent barriers to effective governance, providing some minimal comfort to those seeking to rebuild their lives in 2021 and beyond.


Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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