Four lessons from COVID-19 about change, governance and the role of citizens
Jocelyne Bourgon, September 14, 2020

By Jocelyne Bourgon First published on the Ottawa Citizen on September 14 Time will tell if ...

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By Jocelyne Bourgon

First published on the Ottawa Citizen on September 14

Time will tell if we have learned enough to be better prepared for other preventable high-impact events.

A crisis on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the weaknesses and strengths of our systems, structures and policies. Much can be learned, for instance:

A predicted catastrophe

COVID-19 was not unexpected. For years, scientists have been warning governments of the risks of a coronavirus pandemic. As a society, we chose to ignore the risks.

Predictable high impact events like this pandemic, or climate change, share several characteristics:

• Their impact grows exponentially once a threshold is reached;

• They trigger cascading failures. (Failing to contain the pandemic overwhelms the health system, leading to shutting down the economy and massive public interventions.)

• They are regressive events that disproportionally affect the most vulnerable people and regions.

But it does not need to be this way. COVID-19 is a foretaste of what a climate crisis will look like. Reducing the risks of predicted high-impact events means that we pay a price now because the cost later will be unaffordable in human suffering and damage to the life sustaining capacity of the planet.

The irreplaceable role of the state

The public discourse over several years has focused on the importance of a market economy and the benefits of globalization. This discourse has obscured the importance of the role of government and the public sector.

COVID-19 is a reminder that the state is the “insurer of last resort.” It is the instrument society has perfected over time to make collective decisions, deploy collective resources, and align the contribution of the public, private and civic spheres of life in society. A crisis on the scale of this pandemic, or of the 2008 financial crisis, cannot be addressed through individual initiatives.

The role of government is to invent solutions to societal problems that cannot be solved without its intervention, and to generate results that would not exist without some use of the levers of the state.

Countries with well-functioning public institutions, a tradition for collaboration across sectors and a strong civic spirit have out-performed others during this crisis.

This pandemic revealed the importance of public sector leaders at the national, regional, and local levels. We have witnessed the price paid in human life for denial and inaction in some countries, as well as the heavy cost resulting from polarization and a lack of social cohesion.

The irreplaceable role of citizens

Citizens deserve much of the praise for the capacity displayed by some countries to contain the spread of the virus and to mitigate the impact for society. In these cases, people took on board the recommendations of their health authorities. They shouldered a huge burden by working at home, taking care of children, schooling them, and keeping them safe. They reinvented their work through digital means and their lives to stay safe. They found new ways of maintaining some work-life balance to keep their sanity.

Such a civic spirit is on display in the willingness of people to come together for a common purpose and to reconcile the pursuit of their individual interests in ways that also serve the collective interest.

Challenges like the pandemic, climate change or other complex issues cannot be addressed without the active contribution of citizens, families and communities. It requires collective problem solving

The accelerating velocity of change

More changes were introduced in the last few months than during the previous 10 years: explosion of e-commerce; re-configuring supply chains; working from home; e-learning; e-medicine, etc.

Many of these changes were foreseen and would have taken place in any event but over a longer period. A key lesson is that we are underestimating the collective capacity to adapt to a fast-changing landscape and to invent solutions to the complex problems that stem from living in society.

Governing is a search for balance. The magic does not reside in the efficiency of the parts but in the capacity to align the contribution of the public, private and civic spheres of life to propel society forward. Time will tell if we have learned enough to be better prepared for other preventable high-impact events and to set society on a sustainable human trajectory.

COVID-19 and Climate Change: A Foretaste of Public Service in the 21st Century
Jocelyne Bourgon ,

First published in Ethos, the journal of the Singapore Civil Service College, in its June ...

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First published in Ethos, the journal of the Singapore Civil Service College, in its June edition: a conversation with PGI President Jocelyne Bourgon.

The challenges we now face are emerging from our complex interrelationships with the biological and physical world. To meet them, societies will need to undertake collective efforts based on a broader common understanding and a shared sense of responsibility.

You have been leading the New Synthesis (NS) Initiative for the past 10 years. What is NS, and how might it be relevant to addressing issues like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic?

The New Synthesis Initiative (NS) argues that the classic model of public administration which took shape during the industrial age has served us well, but is insufficient to invent solutions for the multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, dynamic and complex challenges of the 21st century. NS brings together government, society, and people in a co-evolving system of governance that nurtures resilience and adaptive capacities. It integrates past practices, lessons learned from recent public sector reforms and the reality of practice in a post-industrial era. NS recognises that there is not one right way nor even one option, but a broad range of possible choices to invent solutions to the problems that stem from living in society. In short, at the heart of NS is the idea that things are not separate, but interrelated—that the economic, social, civil, and environmental spheres of life are interconnected and interdependent.

To invent solutions to the complex problems governments face today, we need to see ‘wholes’ instead of approaching issues in terms of component parts or institutional silos. We need to engage with issues from a broader and expanding mental map. We need to bring together multiple elements interacting dynamically to generate the desired public outcomes.

Governments must be able to govern (compliance), the state apparatus must be able to get things done (performance), government must be able to invent solutions to problems of living in a society that cannot be solved without some form of public intervention (emergence) and we must build the capacity of society to absorb shocks and disturbances, prosper in unforeseen circumstances and co-evolve with the world we live in (resilience). Taken together, these functions map out a dynamic system of governance where an infinite number of permutations are possible. The challenge for government is to ensure that the overall balance of public, private, and civic actions serves the overall interest of society; this is the stewardship role of government.

Complex issues like climate change and pandemics require holistic and dynamic thinking. NS blends systems theory, adaptive system thinking and complexity theory to invent solutions to complex issues. It argues that the “way we think has a direct impact on the way we frame issues, the solutions that will be found and the results that will be achieved”.1  NS helps public practitioners to re-think, re-frame and invent solutions fit for the time.

Why is it so difficult to make progress on climate change?

Climate change remains one of the greatest challenges of our time. Despite scientific evidence, years of international negotiations and growing public concern, progress on climate change remains elusive. There are a few reasons why it has been difficult to make progress on climate change.

Human thinking is shaped by factors evolving on a human scale and unfolding along human timelines. But climate changes evolve on a totally different scale. The average lifetime of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is in the hundreds of years. The half-life of carbon dioxide (CO2) is 40 years while other emissions’ half-life run up to 200 years. Climate changes require thinking along short, mid, long, extremely long, and even planetary timescales.

Thinking along short timelines has several consequences. The first is to give more weight to short-term costs over longer-term impacts. The second is unwarranted optimism about the human capacity to turn things around when it is needed. Humans tend to assume that when a problem reaches critical proportions, there will be time to take corrective actions. This is a dangerous assumption in the case of complex systems in general, and even more so in the case of events like a pandemic or climate changes.

The lack of appreciation of the long timelines of remediation measures lead to delayed actions. The lack of understanding of complex systems leads to underestimating the urgency of the climate crisis. This hinders progress.

Furthermore, progress on climate change has been difficult due to linear thinking. For instance, people and decision makers alike often find it difficult to understand the difference between the concepts of stocks and flow. Over the years, international negotiations on climate change have focused on reducing the rate of growth of CO2 emissions (flow), but we forget that what matters is the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997 aimed to cut CO2 emissions around 5% by 2012 relative to 1990 levels. The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, aimed to keep the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C. These Agreements are important. However, reducing the rate of growth means that the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to increase and that the planet continues to heat up.

This may be our Copernicus moment. There was a time when people believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe, with the sun and stars circling around it. Copernicus’s work led to a reordering of ideas and concepts. Our “Copernicus moment” requires a reordering of ideas about ecology, biology, economy and life in society in order to preserve the life-sustaining capacity of the planet.

What can we learn from complex issues such as COVID-19 and climate change?

Pandemics and climate risks are good examples of the increasing complexity of the challenges ahead. Unlike the financial crises or rising inequalities, these are shocks originating from the biological and physical world even though humans have much to do about the severity of the crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change share several characteristics:• They are systemic. Their effects propagate across our highly interconnected world and across interdependent systems.• They are low probability cataclysmic events. There is a low probability event but their occurrence is “inevitable” over time. For instance, if there is a 1% probability of a catastrophic event occurring this year, or next year or the year after; it will inevitably happen one day. Since no one can predict when and how, it is tempting not to pay the cost of preparing. As a result, low probability catastrophic events consistently receive insufficient attention. It is the case for pandemic, climate change or other similar events such as a catastrophic geomagnetic storm, etc.• They are non-linear. Their socioeconomic impacts grow disproportionally or exponentially once a threshold is reached.• They trigger cascading failures. They reveal the vulnerabilities across systems (health systems’ lack of resilience, fragmented social systems, chain of production weaknesses, etc.). The failures in one system trigger failures in other systems. They are risks multipliers.• They are regressive. They disproportionally affect the most vulnerable populations, regions, or sub-systems of the global ecosystems.

Complex issues like COVID-19 and climate change are not black swans; they are not unexpected events. Experts and scientists have been warning governments of the impacts of these catastrophic events for years. We chose to ignore them at the risks of millions of people dying or of permanently damaging the life sustaining capacity of the planet. Low probability cataclysmic events like COVID-19 pandemic or climate change are the black elephants in the room—we know about the issues, but we keep ignoring the mounting evidence.

We need a different way of thinking, and openness to different ways of generating solutions. A key ingredient for accelerating the pace of change is to reach a critical level of public awareness and collective consciousness. This is needed to overcome the single interests that favour the status quo, and to generate conditions that provide government with the legitimacy to take action. Public awareness and collective consciousness help to lift the veil of “willful blindness” that affects society.

These complex challenges require big shifts, such as moving:• From a focus on short-term results to building resilience.• From a disaggregated focus on individual elements to a more comprehensive approach and collective problem solving.• From hierarchical leadership to disaggregated leadership requiring actions in multiple spheres of activities that are commensurate to the capabilities and awareness of public, private and civic sector leaders.• From systems and practices able to operate within a narrow band of conditions to adaptive systems resilient in a broader bandwidth.

Issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic call for distributed leadership, increased collective consciousness, and thinking across systems and multiple timelines.

What can we learn from COVID-19 to make progress on climate change?

The current COVID-19 pandemic provides a foretaste of what a climate crisis may look like. Multiple exogenous shocks and disturbances are occurring at once, which are provoking disruptions of global chains. There is rapid global transmission, and amplification mechanisms are accelerating the velocity of change.

A crisis on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic is an important event with significant transformative potential. It reveals the weaknesses in governing systems to respond to unforeseen or unexpected circumstances. It makes visible the lack of resilience and adaptive capacity of public infrastructures and services. It also offers the possibility to accelerate changes that were needed but that would have taken place over much longer periods of time.

COVID-19 provides an unprecedented opportunity to imagine a new balance to reconcile public, private, and civic interests in creative ways and to craft a coherent set of policies to better position countries in the future.

The thinking about challenges emerging from the biological and physical world, including climate changes, must catch up to the holistic nature of the ecological systems we belong to. This is an opportunity to rediscover the “oneness” of life and nature. For instance, NASA images taken on February 10 to 25, 2020, showed a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emission in China where carbon monoxide dropped by 35% to 40% compared to the previous year. As the world stood still and individuals played their parts to contain the spread of the virus, similar reductions were seen in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles. We could breathe again!

COVID-19 has illustrated powerfully the inextricable interrelationships between ecology, economics, and life in society on the only planet known to support human life.

Complex issues cannot be understood in isolation and they cannot be solved through disaggregated interventions. They require a collective effort and entail a shared responsibility.

We know enough to act if there is a will. We know how and have the capabilities to make progress towards a better future, improved human conditions and a more sustainable human trajectory.

This is our Copernicus moment.


  • Jocelyne Bourgon, The New Synthesis of Public Administration Fieldbook (Kopenhagen: Dansk Psykologisk Forlag, 2017).
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