Lessons learned from the impact assessment of COVID-19 on public administration and human resources

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Lessons learned from the impact assessment of COVID-19 on public administration and human resources
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Prof. Bhavna Mehta


The Covid-19 crisis is a unique challenge that transcends national borders of many countries. Its immediate life-threatening effects for certain patients and its contagiousness left no time for executives to reflect upon the measures that would be efficient enough to tame the issue. Conventional tools such as the Parliamentary working, the consultation period, etc. cannot be of great assistance and immediate, flexible forms of management, such as governmental committees and task forces of experts and other stakeholders, are instead recommended, so as to determine in a “sense making approach” a viable provisional solution. Administrations need to acquaint themselves with experimentation and “trial-and-error”, to combine the “regulation” and the “execution”, to “adopt” and “adapt” to new conditions with a new mindset. A “small-wins” approach is of great assistance as it is a step-by-step methodology in which administrations gain knowledge and capitalize on what works and what does not for handling the situation. This new working methodology in unchartered waters challenges the conventional governmental working and takes power from the stable institutional framework, transferring it to more flexible forms of governance. Leadership, novel staff arrangements, better use of e-tools to settle team working and service delivery, and all this combined with political responsibility and accountability, are of great importance in dealing with Covid-19, proving the necessity to dispose of mature democracies in times of crisis.


Covid-19, Crisis Management, Public Management, Public Governance, Meta-Wicked Problems

1. Introduction – New challenges

Governments, are indirectly vested with public power that provides them with legitimation to serve the public interest. They are entitled to deliver adequate services to users, to deal effectively with all public issues, to support people in their effort to uplift the quality of life and to practice value-based management. Contemporary governments incarnate the traditional mission, to design and implement public policies in standard areas (health, education, energy, transportation, etc.). These policies aim to ensure stability; to apply the “rule of law” (Rechtsstaat, État de droit) for the well-being and the prosperity of the community; to protect people from various externalities, such as pollution, fraud, etc., to promote protective safety measures that ensure public health and safety; to place accent to defense and security matters; and to ensure the protection of universal human rights. In their overall mission, the component of the “Enabling State” is also put forth as an essential parameter of a “Robust State” that promotes the societal prosperity and the provision of financial opportunities for the private sector permitting the conciliation between the flourishing of the economy and the societal development. Indeed, within this overall governmental mission – that itself is hard to capture in a few lines -, is added a twofold mission: the first, to overcome or tame old persisting (wicked) problems, (Rittel and Webber, 1973), such as drugs, the climate change or other natural disasters, etc., and the second, to deal with novel, stronger and unforeseeable problems that test the limits and the professionalism of any public entity that must be guided through unchartered waters. Readiness to apply contingency plans seems to be a mediocre responsive measure towards these various novel threats such as outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola, the flu, or the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -related coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV2, COVID-19 natural disasters such as hurricanes; or deliberate attacks with dangerous agents, like anthrax or nuclear weapons (see: The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2018 of USA, S. 2852). Needless to say, that no government can proclaim to be prepared for these systemic threats at a detailed scale at any time. Undoubtedly, there will be errors, miscalculations, misjudgments, and uncountable other fallacies. Ultimately, confronting those issues at a national level becomes an unprecedented challenge that tests the peoples’ trust towards the public domain, the State’s administrative capacity and scientific preparedness for cases of such magnitude. When challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, transgress the frontiers of many States globally, the need for international coordination mechanisms becomes one of utmost importance and any good national tool seems obsolete in the face of exposure to such a strong international threat (Rammata, 2017, p. 46).
It becomes common agreement that to be effective in dealing with these new missions and challenges, governments need to proceed with a total rethinking of their institutional framework (structure), their operations (procedures) and their personnel (human resources) as there can be no tolerance for outdated/traditional tools in dealing with new problems. Handling these in extremis new problems, becomes even more challenging when they relate to health issues and may have a harmful impact on the survival of a large part of the population at a national and international scale.
In this study, first we will put into question the conventional operating role and functioning of governmental institutions along with their unpreparedness to deal effectively with critical cases of great extent such as the Covid-19 crisis. Then, we will analyze the uniqueness of this crisis and its specific features that categorize it as a meta-wick problem that challenges public authorities and leadership. We argue that the huge administrative impact of the crisis of Covid-19 has put into question the common administrative methodology that reigned for many decades in modern States, and the need for massive, catholic, and integrated reform of processes and human resources management to stand up with vital solutions against the outbreak. Specific recommendations will be analyzed for the human factor and its dynamics that can contribute significantly to the management of this crisis.

2. Traditional Governmental Working vs. Modern Governance

Originally, public services that constitute the administrative apparatus or the “prolonged arm” of the State were attributed with one of the most significant tasks: to collaborate with political authorities for the design of policy making and to execute exclusively and accordingly the agreed course of public policy. For this mission, the traditional modus operandi was based on a vertical hierarchy where the authoritative chain of command – in a command/control formula – ensured that cohesiveness and uniformity were totally respected (Simon, 1946, p. 56-58), each action was taken in pursuance of policy decisions and statements in an authoritative and legally coercive model. Public and political legitimacy were important values embodied in the administrative action of the State, while it was not imperative to exercise intense accountability control as the services were loyal to the principle of legitimacy. Indeed, “legitimacy” and the “rule of law” (Peters, 2008) opposed arbitrary power, cronyism or other deviation, and prevailed against any unforeseen innovative scenario of action that could demand flexibility, resilience, and improvisation, putting thus in peril the principles of “Legal competence”, “Reliability, proportionality and predictability” that reign over the administration through law. Bureaucracy, was an essential part of this traditional paradigm of action and was considered “as a force of realization of the general interest” (especially in France) (Rosanvallon, 2011, p. 54).
Under this legalistic perception of the administrative State, the so-called Weberian approach (Pollitt and Bouckaert, 2011, p. 71, Weber, 1947), the handling of public issues was strictly restrained by the legal framework. Any course of action was based on hard law (and if there wasn’t one, then it should be proposed) and procedural fairness was expressed in the legal documents that unfolded in a quite stable environment, in a systematic and linear interconnection between “monolithic institutions”, “causes”, “effects”, “outputs” and “outcomes”. This administrative law tradition (Peters, 2008) with rules emanating from a solid and legitimate institutional framework, favored the creation of “silos” between administrations, and the separation of “regulation” from “execution” or otherwise the “thinking” was separated and not combined with the “doing”.
In the given administrative context, there was a need for threefold requirements that ultimately constitute the administrative action of the State:
– First, the quality of substantive regulatory law that provided the framework for decision-making within a given policy field (OECD, 1999, p. 25).
– Second, the quality of procedural administrative law that provided due procedures for administrative decision-making, for cohesion, co-ordination and for balancing powers.
– Third, the quality of financial and administrative accountability and control mechanisms that would enhance the transparency, the correct exercise of public power, and would provide checks for financial and administrative decision-making or other means for correction, prosecution, and redress (OECD, 1999, p. 25).
In this given period, the approach of Anderson (Anderson, 2003, Friedrich, 1940) for public policy was applicable: “Public policy emerges with a relatively stable, purposive course of action followed by an actor or set of actors in dealing with a problem or matter of concern (that cannot be resolved otherwise)”. More precisely, the adopted common method called for a pattern through which the various facets of the problem at stake were examined, bearing in mind that its subproblems would all amount to the big problem and could be rather smoothly analyzed with foreseeable and manageable consequences. Solutions would be, more or less, predictable and quite possibly would give the most reliable answer that could satisfy all parts (the politicians, the organization, interested stakeholders outside of it and at large the society as well). After this stage, the effective regulation would be proposed, or a relevant reform of the existing one that could resolve this and other relevant matters.
Under this optic, in the public sector, à contrario to what is common practice in the private sector, it was not a common practice:
– to differentiate activities regarding the specific civilian conditions that civil servants encountered in cases, but rather to act uniformly and to apply the same sufficiently detailed directives, in an attempt to homogenize cases respectfully to the principle of equity.
– to apply the experimentation and the “trial-and-error” method and thus, to adopt, ex post, the most appropriate regulation in a way combining “regulation” and “execution”. Even though, since 1931 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote echoes the same approach: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
– to be more extroverted than introverted and to collaborate intensively with organizations and other stakeholders (in a form of a network, Rhodes et al., 2006, p.426) of the society; an approach that for traditional public administrators would put into peril the legitimacy and the implementation of the principle of non-disclosure of public information to those who do not have the authentic authority to have access.
– to evaluate various choices of public policies that needed elaborated evidence-based practice and research that combined information from various sources (Chalmers, 2003, in : Hammersley, 2005, p. 88) and to propose the adequate policy after reflection, investigation and argumentation about how and why the scheduled program or policy creates more positive outcomes and solves more problems than those that it might create in specific areas affected.
– to coordinate actions at an international level because of globalization and its impact on the administrative activity. All states were treating the same issues independently and there was no pressure to create coordinated responsive mechanisms to deal effectively common threats (European Commission, 2017b, p. 7).
The well-known steps of the rational model or the well-known cycle of public policy making (Anderson, 1975) that represents a rather idealized process was in various scholar’s writings analyzed (Walker, 2000) as:
– Identify the problem and the objectives of the new policy that is meant to treat the problem in question.
– Decide on criteria that will measure the performance and the cost.
– Select the alternative policies to be evaluated.
– Analyze and compare each alternative under the above-mentioned specific measurement criteria.
– Implement the chosen option.
– Monitor and evaluate the results.
– Extract the lessons learned after the application period.
During the implementation period, there was enough time to proceed with adjustments that would seem significant to improve the response to more persisting problems. In that way, public authorities created a pattern through which public policies unfolded in due time and executives had second or even third opportunities to reposition themselves and to amend any miscalculation in due time. All the above-mentioned scenarios could work out perfectly when the environment would be relative stable, without turbulent interruptions and with clear paths of behavior ahead designated for the future direction.
In sum, Governments and institutions were expected to act following the below characteristics in order to respond accordingly to public issues and crisis:
– Place great accent to the application of the “rule of law” and the legal competence principal, propose criteria for the measurement of performance and initiate new areas of intervention that are not included in the legislative arsenal of the State.
– Consume adequate time for limited research upon the subject (in house or in relation with selective external communities that have themselves access to political authorities) and then develop a thorough examination of alternatives and measurement criteria before deciding how to act.
– Manage hierarchies in a linear process that could lead to a definite policy making at a political-administrative level before taming the parliamentary procedure to approbate the relevant policy making.
– Analyze only “what” and “how” it happens at a vertical national scale because the national issues are in most cases unique and there is no need to identify and to take initiative for the management of co-dependent and interoperability matters that advocate for the adoption of coordinated measures at an intergovernmental level.
– Be introverted and closed instead of extroverted and open to other organizations and groups of pressure.
– Errors and miscalculations, as wrong doings should be avoided as they cannot be excused for any good reason.
– Reform what has been recently adopted after a long period of implementation and avoid any reform right after its implementation, which would mean mediocre design of the policy.
But ultimately, today, can the policy design and the implementation of public programs be all about drafting legislation and applying the rule of law? (Majone, 1989). Or are there other ways to improvise and propose adequate solutions for persisting and critical issues that are of great importance, without altering the professionalism, the impartiality, and the principle of competence in the civil service?
In the following sections we will be exploring the attempts to reform the agenda in the contemporary public administration by challenging the patters of administrative behavior.

2.1. Reforming the Agenda of the “Reformed” Modern Governance

The need to reform the public administration is an old project always in process. It is indeed common understanding that as long as the public sector expands to new grounds, it needs to reform its institutional framework and its people at the same pace so as to be in tune with the new settings. But, is this really the case in the public sector paradigm? Or does reality prove that the public sector responds with delay to these calls and that the more complex they are, the more it fails to adjust its institutional and procedural framework as well as the culture of its personnel? Thus, this project of reforming the public administration becomes even more imperative in time of crisis when there is a huge need to “adopt” and “adapt”. Because indeed in a crisis: “A group of people, an organization, a community, or a society perceives a threat to shared values or life-sustaining systems that demands an urgent response under conditions of deep uncertainty” (Rosenthal et al., 1989, in: Ansell and Boin, 2019, p. 1082).
We will proceed with our analysis by demonstrating what has already been done in the field of reforming and redefining the “Programs”, “Process”, “Technology”, “People”, and “Practices” in modern times to equip governments and public administration executives with the relevant administrative tools to face these challenges, and what more this entails in dealing with aggressive threats such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
An integrated definition of Public Sector Management (PSM) reform for the World bank refers to it as: “The art and science of making the public sector machinery work. It is about deliberately changing the interlocking structures and processes within the public sector that define how financial and physical resources and people are deployed and accounted for (World Bank, 2012, p. 2). It has always been discussed as a vital issue the one related to the effectiveness and efficiency of public administration during novel circumstances and challenges. Two decades ago, the OECD has solicited governments to establish an agenda to achieve better performance (OECD, 2001) and to encapsulate a series of other reforms (Dunleavy and Hood, 1994, p. 10) that would present an integrated administrative state.
Indeed, if in the past 30 years more governments have undergone major changes, it was to better prepare them for new assignments and with the following objectives:
– To be more democratic, transparent, and accountable during the decision-making processes and to overcome tensions between public participation, political willingness, technical and expertise contribution. At the same time there was a need to promote the consultation methodology and the co-responsibility (between the state and the society, NGOs, etc.) while proceeding with the public policies (Rammata, 2021).
– To enhance the multilevel governance and to recognize more authority and administrative capacity for local and regional level authorities so as to practice the subsidiarity principle and to become more accountable towards the society. At the epicenter of this reform were questions related to the concept of decentralization as the transfer of competences from the central level to elected authorities at the subnational level versus the concept of deconcentration that reflects the presence of the state at regional level (Charbit, 2011, p.14).
– To apply the “New Public Management” (NPM) doctrine (European Commission, 2018 and 2015, OECD, 1997, Hood, 1991) that is used to denote the need to adapt the bureaucratic model to new flexible market-based principles that will make it work better, deliver quality services, promote financial prosperity, and encourage better life conditions on an equal basis. The public sector, not only adopts the methodologies of the private sector, [total quality management, operations, measurement of performance (UN 2011, UNDP, 2015), etc.], but it also negotiates with it for the delivery of new services in new fields (Rhodes, 1994, p. 138) wherein it seems to be inefficient. So, it has passed from the ownership and the direct provision of public utilities (energy, water, etc.) towards creating and regulating new markets.
– The NPM concept encapsulates the following objectives for governments and administrations to become:
1. Efficient in a managerial approach, with maintenance of a good ratio between resources employed and results attained e.g. number of children from one (1) to five (5) years in kindergarten per full time equivalent, number of children per teacher, cost per user, etc..
2. Effective in terms of outputs according to characteristics important for the service such as timeliness, affordability, disease-specific cost-effectiveness measures, etc…
3. High-performing while being loyal to the principle of quality, e.g. number of days taken to provide an individual with needed assistance, number of different caregivers providing elder home care to a single individual, etc.. At the same time, to present more outcomes with beneficial impact to the society and with the stress on quality, rather than outputs (Pollitt, 2002, p. 474, Osborne and Gaebler, 1992) that are associated with more tangible and reachable results (e.g. quality of operating surgeries vs. number of surgeries delivered) while being disassociated by the inputs (budget of the organization) that was the case many decades ago.
– To reform the enshrined unified administrative activity that is identical for the regulatory state that treats equally similar occasions in accordance with the terms laid down by law, and to introduce the possibility to treat more cases in a tailor-made process that will give the liberty to apply the legal doctrine of administrative discretion (pouvoir discrétionnaire) in an even more lato sensu approach. Indeed, administrative law dictates a very concrete and legally defined procedure through specific steps that one must bypass – without being unlawful -, to face turbulent and unforeseeable events.
– To invite stakeholders (Bryson, 2004, Bishop P. and Davis, G. 2002, p.18) or representatives of the relevant Epistemic Community (Haas, 1992) or other groups and consultants that may participate in policy making process on an “on call” basis and especially for more complex issues that demand the expertise and the valuable knowledge of experts. The provision of expertise and technical details on the subject was part of a well-prepared institutionalized framework of consultancy that took the shape of a national law. Usually, the consultancy period could last from 3 to 12 weeks to permit the formulation of a complete idea of the matter in question (European Commission, 2017a, p. 379, UK Government, 2008, European Commission, 2002).
– To be inclusive and prone to deal effectively with the disadvantaged members of the society (European Commission, 2000) in the framework of the “Social State” (e.g. recipients of home-based care as compared to the share inhabitants in different age groups).
– To adopt a whole of a government approach (Pollitt, 2003) in favor of interoperability and coordination that will lead to the breakdown of silos between institutions and hierarchical levels. If there is no general view of the reforming process, then any change in one part of the system can have unintended impacts on another.
In all these reforming projects that many international organizations have advocated in various international projects and reports (OECD, 2005, Reports of the World Bank, the IMF, etc.) the need for maximization of results has prevailed in an attempt to formulate states that would be productive, responsive to problems or emerging needs and capable of managing the detriment effects of any crisis at a local scale. A question that arises is to what degree this international movement, that called for readiness and preparedness, prepared governments to face almost any issue that upheaves the national framework. It was not mentioned in any report that promoted the excellency and the principles of good administration, that the public sector has entered an era where the long-term strategic plans become obsolete in front of massive, extraordinary, and unstructured problems that today’s reality presents. Solutions such as contingency plans, detailed legislations, time consuming consultation periods, etc., cannot strengthen the preparedness and legitimate the actions of the executive. Instead, the Administrative state should come up with new innovative ideas and methodologies that clearly buttress the responsive capacity of the state in the form of the Robust state (Ansell et al., 2020, p. 4, Rammata, 2011, p. 117) and prepare the society to understand the new missions that challenge the trustworthiness of the administration.
The above-mentioned characteristics of post-modern governance have led to a new paradigm of public administration where stability and regularity gradually recede in front of flexibility and responsiveness that become common traits, and are even more stressed in times of ferocious crisis, such as a pandemic.
Nowadays, these modern tools for public governance need to be remodeled in the face of changes such as Covid-19, which is the objective of analysis in the following section.

Table 1.

The “old” governance and its transformation to the “modern” and to the current “post-modern” governance

Old Governance

Modern Governance

Post Modern Governance Dealing With Meta-Wicked Problems







Reliability and predictability

Uncertainty and some predictability





Some alternatives

Many alternatives

Multiple alternatives with numerous sub-alternatives


Openness and continuous monitoring of the external environment

Search for an optimum equilibrium and networking with partners from the external environment

“Rule of law” doctrine and legal competence – Burdensome regulations

Flexible smooth regulatory transition to deal with the situation in a case-by-case methodology

Rule with more “soft” than “hard” law

Some stakeholders

Many stakeholders – Need for selective stakeholders to interfere in policy making

Search for excellent expertise and technical knowledge on the area in stake

Institutions that work as “silo”

Institutional coordination

Whole of a government approach

Unified administrative activity

Efforts to expand the use of the discretionary power

Tailor-made application of soft law

Disclosure of legal regulations that were published (in an official bulletin or journal) or directed only to those that were concerned

Transparency and disclosure of all public deliberations at all levels

Transparency and availability of information to the public from the moment it is being processed

Restricted areas of internationalization and coordination

Internationalization at the maximum and need for intensive international coordination mechanisms

Complete submission to the rules dictated by the international organizations in specific fields

3. The Modern Chaotic Environment and the Meta-Wicked Problem of Covid-19

Public administration functions as an open system and as such it is exposed to the variations of the external environment, characterized by the terms Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA) (European Commission 2017c, p. 7) that are used to denote:
– Volatility: Any government is vulnerable towards the ebbs and flows in almost all matters stemming from the financial, environmental, societal, technological, legal environment. All these and other fluctuations demand an accurate and usually fast response, or the harmful effects may be devastating.
– Uncertainty: All data and given parameters are put into question at any time due to the variety of influences and the multidisciplinary interventions. Any public issue is confronted by a multitude of actors and several multilevel institutions that have a legitimate say during the procedure of managing the issue. The nature of public issues makes it easy to propose solutions that may lead to unintended consequences. For instance, the measure to intensify police patrols in a certain district does not tackle criminality and may lead to the movement of criminals to another neighboring area.
– Complexity: No public matter is ever characterized as a simple one, starting for instance, from the “simple” transportation policy issue that may evolve from a transportation expertise to an analysis contemplating the environmental, technological, architectural, urban planning, human resources aspects and so forth.
– Ambiguity: It is usually difficult to define a public issue of great importance because: it has never one clear cause or answer; it involves various players that raise their voices; it creates disagreements and tough discussions as to what might be a proposed solution with the least negative effects; etc.
This VUCA framework generates messy problems that may easily push the political and administrative machinery into an uncontrolled situation with various negative repercussions. Those characterized as unique and rare problems in the past, have now gained a transversal presence in traditional public policies and they affect the habitual action of services (from design and programming to execution and assessment). So, if yesterday public officials had to deal with a series of fixed practices and issues in a stable external environment where no vulnerability and strong state interdependence existed, today, they must deal with the extraordinary, the unexpected, the urgent and the different. And why is this the modern reality? Because inputs from the external VUCA environment are varying in smaller or larger amounts and the politico-administrative system produces many different (negative) outputs that correspond to that particular set of input conditions in a nonlinear option that becomes the rule. The attempt to find fixed solutions according to the rule laid down, and according to the interpretative criteria produced by the courts, cannot find application, as there is no precedent situation, and the politico-administrative framework cannot act according to its traditional way. So, acting in a form of standard operating procedures that apply to similar situations stumbles into the complexity of new events, unbalanced factors, and multidimensional forms of data from the VUCA environment that forms what is now called “chaos”.
“Chaos is when everything seems on the verge of collapse today, yet somehow emerges tomorrow or next month in a new form with new structures and new relationships. For chaos theorists and administrators alike, such experiences are not the exception but the rule. Organizations and political systems are what chaos theorists would call far from-equilibrium systems” (Overman, 1996, p. 487). In turbulent-chaotic conditions (Bechtold, 1997, p. 193), it is hard to make quick judgments and to reposition accordingly the administrative system to overcome incoming problems for which there is no previous knowledge or experience. It is not only difficult, but possibly unmanageable, – at least for the initial period -, to handle effectively those matters for which the issue of causality becomes problematic and the equilibrium methodology that system theorists proclaim becomes hard to achieve (von Bertalanffy, 1968).
The unique “Covid-19” crisis is considered, at first glance, a wicked problem (Rittel and Webber, 1973, Peters, 2017, p. 385) because it accumulates all the characteristics of a complex problem emanating from a VUCA environment that has multiple facets and repercussions in many public policy domains, from health, to finances, education, transportation and so forth. The reasons behind the high contagiousness of Covid-19 were unknown, those affected could not have the appropriate treatment at once, it was life-threatening and had explosive growth making it from a local problem of a Chinese town to a problem of global concern.
Indeed, decision makers and bureaucrats are in many ways unqualified to cope with problems of such magnitude as the Covid-19 crisis which:
– Is an unforeseeable public problem with no related previous knowledge and experience under the same conditions, previous pandemics were in a more manageable context, with less contagiousness and remained at a regional level (e.g. the Spanish flu in 1918, or H1N1 influenza in 2009).
– Demands immediate action or the negative repercussions will develop at a larger extent and it will become unaffordable for governments to manage the expenses.
– Is pervasive and englobes all public domains of intervention, from health to energy, transportation, commerce, etc..
– Involves various stakeholders with different definitions about it that all have a say in the handling of the crisis.
– Has no clear and definite solution and each alternative has various repercussions, positive and negative, in other policies (be it commerce, education, employment, transportation, culture, environment, etc.).
– Englobes the idea of internationalization of administrations where all states are confronted with the same issue at different speeds, each with various resources but with the same urgent need to tame it (Rammata, 2017).
Considering the above-mentioned attributes of Covid-19 we tend to highlight that it surpasses the characteristics of the conventional wicked problems that literature offers (such as poverty, drugs, climate change, etc.) (Alford and Head, 2017, p. 401) and we integrate it into the larger category of meta-wicked problems that have more aggressive and immediate repercussions, thus, demanding a more professional and immediate action. In short, it is important to find urgently an integrated solution (as the vaccine is) or the negative repercussions will be far more disastrous and immediate than those of the well-known wicked problems, such as poverty or climate change.
In our next and final section, we will attempt to develop what may be considered as a pragmatic approach to handle Covid-19 pandemic through the Human Resources factor in a more flexible and resilient way.

3.1. Dealing with COVID-19 Through Adequate Human Resources Management Tools

In crisis situations such as Covid-19, the conventional governmental work is put into question and authorities investigate methods to react accordingly. For many decades and in most countries, the decent response to public policy problems was to propose the establishment of institutions that: “Find their principal justification as a procedure for the validation of value judgments” (Simon, 1997 p. 65) and that could protect democratic values and stability. This pattern of acting was quite successful for developing countries that were indeed introducing “predictable, coherent and functionning bureaucracy in order to be institutional capable to respond to crises” (Evans, 1992, p. 411). Instead, today’s reality of the European and advanced democracies, advocates for the dismantling of the hard, heavy, burdensome, and old institutional framework that embeds every governmental action and its reconversion to a softer, light, flexible and supple organizational apparatus that can better respond to a crisis.
Governmental working is remodeled and adopts gradually the following methodologies:
– Early monitoring, anticipation and containment of crisis locally.
– Networking
– Managing partnerships and creating valuable connections with players that contribute to the design and the implementation of the crisis management plan.
– Participative rulemaking and putting the society first that ought to know the progress of the crisis and its handling by the competent authorities.
– Dual command (from experts and the political power).
– Conciliation mechanisms and capacity to overcome conflicts of interest.
– Horizontal inter-sectorial cooperation in a “whole of a government” approach and a blurred jurisdictional framework.
– Cultural adjustments and counterbalanced measures to treat the negative societal repercussions (e.g. social distancing, canceling of recreational activities, unemployment of those affected, etc.).
In a more detailed manner, we will present below a proposition plan for better preparation and resilience for public administrations and their Human resources while tackling the crisis of Covid-19, in three steps forward.
(1) Before and at the Beginning of the Manifestation of the Crisis
In the face of the VUCA environment where public organizations interact, there is a great need to develop suitable mechanisms that will make it possible to detect at an early stage any harmful threat for the organization, the public service, and the society in general.
It is recommended to have at the state’s disposal solid departments that are staffed with the best mixture of technocrats, experts, and scientists, such as statisticians, analysists, data mining experts, etc. In case of non-availability of these experts (which is the most possible case most administrations face), outsourcing or bilateral cooperation with the relevant stakeholders such as think-tanks, groups of experts, scientific laboratories, etc., may also be an equivalent solution to satisfy the need for information on the various facets of the “messy” problem. Nevertheless, it is recommended for state actors to have the capacity to professionally approve their composition which is critical for the final decision. Those experts are put in place to detect any leading indicators that act as a warning sign for the next step to follow in the framework of the outbreak of an imminent crisis. This methodology must be applied at all vertical administrative layers (central government, decentralized government, local authorities). To achieve success, various experts in administrations should act accordingly, ensure fact-based policy development, and exchange data whenever needed to formulate a reasonable argument and develop multiple cross-departmental indicators that can positively affect the future action of the administration. In such cases, an imminent crisis can be anticipated and recognized as such at an early stage, permitting the authorities to prepare themselves for the upcoming outbreak, in cooperation with the relevant stakeholders.
– Early Provisions for the Human Resources Adaptation
At the first stages of the crisis, modifications are introduced in terms of designing the next steps to follow before the explosion of the pandemic. This is related to prepare contingency plans for the human factor, to be able to handle the big number of absentees from work, the categorization of people between those that will need to work overtimes (eg. members of the Information and Technology (IT) department or the Human resources department, etc.) and those that will need to adopt the part time working. Flexible working methods are recommended to accompany the change, whether it is to establish the right shifts of personnel to diminish the presence of people at work and at the same time, to develop an online working software and database that will permit the distance working.
(2) During the Expansion of the Crisis: The New Working Methodology and the Catalyst Intervention of Human Resources and Experts
“Messy” problems like Covid-19 require a coordinated national policy among competent authorities and an inter-ministerial coordination that evolves from a necessary evil to an “ardent obligation” (General de Gaulle quote). The more complex and ambiguous the system is, the greater the need for central steering and coordination, but it is, unfortunately, inclined to fail, as there are many factors that interfere in the process and there is no consensus for the primordial role of any of them (almost all Ministries, national health experts with different options, laboratories, Universities, associations of Medicines’, etc.). The management of the Covid-19 crisis is bringing in the question of the ownership of coordination mechanisms that will be implemented at a national level. Usually, it is at the central governmental level that these committees and working groups operate and depend, and this is the given fact that we will consider in this paper.
It appears that throughout the crisis, governmental routines change, conventional administrative working flow cannot find application and rapid multi-task ad hoc taskforces, such as inter-ministerial committees, sub-committees, and working groups, are installed. Their composition is determined to ensure a broad participation of various stakeholders:
– Representatives of the respective governmental departments.
– Local authorities, with their various committees and groups being represented to support and explain the regional or local metrics on the subject and the feasibility of measures.
– The best qualified national and foreign experts on the pandemic.
– Representatives of economic sectors, the commerce.
– Research bodies concerned.
– Social partners involved in the subject of Covid-19.
– Other associations, interested parties, think-tanks specialised on the matter.
The aims of the working of these groups will be:
– To elaborate on the various aspects of the issue at stake (that may have been detected at an early stage as it was developed in the previous paragraphs).
– To monitor the implementation plan.
– To oversee the crisis in depth while being able to respond in faster terms than the traditional machinery of the state.
It is critical to know that all these deliberations are being held in an open and unobstructed manner that may affect the efficiency of the procedure (e.g. political pressions, etc.) while the competent administrative authorities should demonstrate coordination and negotiation skills, analysis of complex data skills, and policy development capacity. Also, due to pressure of time, only selective experts and competent representatives should have the power to intervene. As it can be easily understood, if the State doesn’t dispose a priori of an organised register with all the available experts by sector/discipline (and/or by Department in a vertical way) it is difficult to put in place and effectively organize these working groups during any turbulent crisis. If that happens, authorities will completely depend on the bottom-up expression of willingness of stakeholders to participate which may endanger the whole procedure (those who are the most implicated in the field may easily be excluded). Also, and as it was stressed in the previous section, the administration should have the capacity to oversee and approve also, the composition of these committees as this is the most critical success factor for their final recommendations.
The biggest challenges that these committees and working groups will face will be:
– To create knowledge about the problem (is it a health, social, labour, financial…problem?).
– To explore the various facets of the problem, if not to define it.
– To reflect upon what may be the critical success factors for diminishing, gradually, its negative consequences.
– To elaborate on various aspects of the subject and to finalise the best alternative scenarios that may help to tame the issue in an incrementalistic way (Lindblom, 1959, 1979) and in a “small-wins” (Termeer and Dewulf, 2019, Termeer et al. 2015) case by case methodology. If at the beginning of the crisis the measures were unified at a national scale, the more the pandemic expanded the more the measures became specified and polyvalent pertaining to the specific conditions at a local scale. The old-fashioned thinking of public administration about a unified approach to solve issues cannot be of any help for dealing with a crisis as multifarious as a pandemic.
The objective here it is not to come up with a final solution at once, but in a more “sensemaking approach” to promote the negotiation and the debate between experts with the expectation to arrive at a common understanding, and perhaps, to have a rapprochement of views on some aspects of the complex problem that may lead to its containment. Many competitive options will appear, but the advanced technological instruments, scientific researchers’ findings, the internet, and the exchange of experts’ information are of great assistance in adopting the best qualified option in a fact-based decision-making process. So, a scenario-based response plan is launched depending on the criteria that are chosen and with the acceptance that any proposition can easily be replaced by a new one very soon. Being able to propose vital solutions will create “small wins” satisfaction (e.g. the diminishing of number of people under severe clinical conditions, or the reduction of numbers of deaths, etc.) that may be followed by the management of the problem. In the epicentre of this procedure lays the trial-and-error method, the experimentation and the evidence-based policy that were unfamiliar to the traditional public working (as it was exposed in the first part of this analysis).
These new working methods are being developed simultaneously with the expansion of the crisis (for more than one year now) and it is important to keep updated daily evidence on the situation, along with the relevant propositions that are submitted. Therefore, the meta-wicked problem of Covid-19 is testing the limits of the conventional public administration functioning that was always separating the “thinking” from the “doing”, the “design” from the “execution”. In these times of messy and complex issues, both activities are about to be merged and their close harmonious interconnection dictates the course of action and the final decision to be adopted under the form of a regulation in a fast-track legal process.
The recommendations of those committees and working groups will act as formal consultation instruments for the executive in times of crisis, but the political decision will remain in the hands of the executive. We have witnessed during the Covid-19 crisis political authorities being dependent on the technical/medical suggestions of “infectious disease specialists” who order, the closure of schools or, the canceling of sports and other commercial initiatives. In such situations we see, in some cases, the political authorities neglecting to undertake full responsibility for all relevant decisions and not amending, somewhat the technical experts’ suggestions to make them politically viable. For instance, if the closure of establishments cannot be tolerated in financial terms, softer measures, that conciliate the protection of public health and the sustainability of the private sector, may be implemented. In some cases, the technical expertise seemed to be incorporated in the political willingness, but the responsibility emanates truly and solely from the elected political authorities. So, a question that emerges is how to define the limits to which the technical experts dictate the course of action that can lead to a better protection of the public health. The boundaries are blurred between the technical expertise on the subject and the political initiative and so is the whole procedure in terms of transparency (e.g. minutes of meetings of experts being disclosed, etc.). There seems to be no room of maneuver for the elected politicians who carry the responsibility in front of the society. In some cases, the failure of the propositions of these scientific commissions has acted as a scapegoat for politicians!
All the above-mentioned administrative activities take place on behalf of the executive and in a parallel administrative apparatus that functions under the – restricted for the time being – conventional institutional framework. Time is not enough for research and resources to be activated (such as Parliamentary Committees) (as if it was a regular public policy), nor for a lengthy public consultation that would give legitimacy to decisions or increase accountability. Therefore, in almost all public administrations of OECD members the COVID-19 crisis triggered the application of stipulations that legitimate any immediate governmental action to tame the issue. Parliaments, adopted in a fast-track urgent procedure all necessary rules to prevent the spread of the virus and protect public health. “In Germany, for example, the federal minister announced an anticorona legislative package on 23 March….only four days later the laws largely came into force – all this fully in line with the provisions of the Constitution (Grundgesetz) and the rules of procedure” (OECD, 2020, p.11).
– Provisions for Civil Servants During the Crisis
During the outbreak, all contingency plans prepared at the previous stage must be implemented as accurately as possible. The staff is bound to be redeployed regarding the nature of the job, and only those who are considered to exercise very critical competences should be present in work premises. Services are delivered online to citizens; schooling is suspended, and respective leaves are recognized for working parents. In administrations such as Belgium, France, Latvia, and Portugal, special legal provisions were introduced to ensure that distance working is as productive as the conventional working and if this is not assured by the competent supervisor, civil servants can be “formally exempted from service, placed on a special leave of absence or be considered in justified absence and maintain all rights, including their salary” (OECD, 2020, p. 8). In other states, such as Slovenia, there was a special instrument, “waiting for work”, that “applied to civil servants who cannot telework by their manager’s decision: they receive 80% of their average salary for the preceding three months” (OECD, 2020, p. 8). Other flexible working arrangements included : rotation system between those working in-house and those working from distance, staggered working schedules to prevent commuting during the same hours, reconversion from conventional to online service delivery, etc..
The crisis increased the pression for delivering quickly and efficient services in the medical sector, as the need for more doctors, medical advisors, nurses, and paramedical staff appeared at its highest rate. For this reason, the budgetary pression was high for some states to reply to these needs and adequately hire, as quickly as possible, the specific categories for some critical “Covid” hospitals. At this regard, some countries also opted for the increase of salaries of the personnel in medical services (Hungary, Latvia) or considered working as being performed in dangerous conditions, which warranted a special allowance (in Slovenia, this type of allowance was increased from 45% to 100% for hours worked in dangerous conditions) (OECD, 2020, p. 9). Furthermore, public administrations replicated to those needs by shortening the hiring period and simplifying the procedural related paperwork, by fulfilling posts with short term contracts or with extraordinary staff for specific-urgent reasons. Also, inter-services mobility for personnel was allowed within the public services or even between the public and the private sector (e.g. in Greece where doctors from the private sector were called to deliver services in public Covid-Hospitals).
Apart from the medical sector, the personnel in the Ombudsman bureau in the majority of European States encountered, also, great pressure to deal with a lot of citizens’ complaints about the functioning of the public sector during crisis or the restrictions to human rights and freedom or, also, about the implementation of severe measures (fines) being imposed to people when they neglected to comply with the detailed measures that affected their everyday life (binding from movement after 21:00, not having filled in the right governmental form to permit movement, etc.).
– The Leadership Factor in Crisis Management
During the development of the crisis, it is noteworthy to mention the significance of the leadership factor. The Covid-19 crisis demonstrated the power that the political leaders and top managers possess in generating obligations for all members of the society and users of public services. During these unprecedent times, leadership and political authorities’ capacity are demonstrating their immense power and freedom to act on behalf of the general interest, and there lies the significance of the personalities that are vested with public authority. If it is not the right person in office, then the whole procedure may fail, and the members of the society would suffer all consequences. In almost all European countries, the Heads of the governments, along with the Council of Ministers were the ones that took direct control of management of the crisis, notably chairing the crisis management council/committee directly and holding regular media briefings. So, it was very important to meticulously analyze all recommendations and adopt the right decisions in conformity with the current pandemic data. For this, each political leader should have an appropriate team to lean on and not to quest their expertise and objectivity.
In the management of the crisis, it is one of the recurring debates about how important it is to keep updated the public with all the relevant official information and data emanating from the competent executive and to disclose information, in a day-by-day basis, about all renewable data as the crisis evolved. The executive’s capacity for democratic steering of public affairs became even more critical in these times and the trust of society’s was being put to the test, because all decisions were taken in huis-clos with the political personnel and the technical-pandemic advisors affecting by their deliberations the whole society and the economy.

(3) After the crisis
A need to develop a report on the lessons learned from the managing of the crisis is needed to understand the reasons behind the mistakes that have been made and to be prepared for the next crisis case. The Academic Community should cultivate a common space that will pass the information smoothly from one state to the other so as the wrongdoings of the past will become lessons learned for the future. After all, the Covid-19 crisis has made it crystal-clear that there is an absolute need for global cooperation and regulation on how to handle crises and how to overcome, at least, their first critical negative repercussions. Even the best organized state, if it fails in coordinating this multifarious task, will be vulnerable and will depend on the performance of a weak neighbor that cannot manage the crisis effectively and facilitates the transmission of the virus. Better organized states should offer their help towards less organized to mitigate the crisis and be able to coordinate the national authorities on the matter.

4. Conclusions

International organizations recommend to governments to be more productive, responsive to problems or emerging needs and capable to manage the detriment effects of any crisis at a local scale before it expands. However, in most reports and international forums, the need to strengthen the immediate responsive machinery of governments was not accordingly highlighted and many administrative states cannot easily find their path in handling critical situations of high risk for the society and the economy. In the current complex external (VUCA) environment, it is difficult to function as if we are positioned in a relative stable environment where problems are structured and clear. The Covid-19 problem surpasses the characteristics of the conventional wicked problems (such as poverty, drugs, climate change, etc.) and is integrated into the larger category of meta-wicked problems that have more aggressive and immediate repercussions and that demand professional and immediate action. The ill-defined modern crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, as it was above analyzed, calls for flexible, resilient, and soft governance, where scientific, technical experts, think-tanks and other organizations come to the fore and attempt to propose vital provisional solutions that may present “small-wins” for the states and the society.
In crisis as the pandemic, the traditional governmental work is suspended and bypassed by emergency related procedures that permit the accurate, and prompt, reaction towards the submitted fluctuant data. Under this option, the daily monitoring and analysis of data related to the crisis are of great importance to facilitate the formulation of an evidence-based response and decision making, whereas, political authorities depend completely on the expertise and the resolutions of technical committees or task forces. All various stakeholders, medical or pandemic advisors, acquire an unprecedent power and almost dictate to elected or governmental officials what they should do to correctly handle the crisis. At the same time, at national level, there is a great need to achieve good multilevel governance, whereas at an international level, there is a great need to share information and specific knowledge between states that, do not and must not, hide data and facts so as to promote the universal benefit.
Time pressure, of course, contributed to the fact that in almost all countries, public administration applied the emergency constitutional stipulations that permitted extraordinary and fast-track parliamentary procedures that legitimated the whole procedure. In front of this “chaotic” situation, the people remain pathetic recipients of the will of the authorities and suffer the restrictions in personal freedom, freedom of movement, development of conventional commercial activities, etc. To cope with this situation, and make it more legitimate, provisions should be adopted to ensure accessibility in medical and other related information data that give justification for all the decisions and the restricted measures taken in accordance (?) with the principle of proportionality. Failure in communicating the governmental decisions to the society (the so-called public accountability) or shaping and reshaping the political declarations on the matter, seemed to be an “amateur” approach and caused strong reactions from public and what’s more, alleviated (in some cases) the support of the society that is, at any stage, crucial in fighting the pandemic.
The need to adapt administrations to the extraordinary working conditions that the pandemic exerted on human resources leaded to the adoption of “fast track” changing mechanisms on staff arrangements and service delivery, that in some countries it would have taken years to plan and to put in action. So, here, we acknowledge that the driving force to make sustainable and resilient the administration towards the “pandemic” threat, ended up to the adoption of quick and performant on-line tools, teleworking methodologies and tele conferencing, rotating staff within the public sector or between the public and the private sector, while having in a fast way, also, prepared all the relevant legal regulations that enforce and legalize their implementation. On the other side, for mature countries in terms of digital developments (such as the UK, France, or Germany, etc.) the challenge was to deepen their knowledge and experience in dealing with online tools and in fostering the lessons learned regarding the application of novel administrative procedures and human resources management during crisis.
In summary, one of the best lessons learned in dealing with Covid-19, it was to consider how important it is to be administrative capable to form a flexible plan for the crisis management and to recommend to administrations to build robust and resilient departments that have the will to incorporate novel scientific sectors, if not to undertake in-house research of the crisis, to be able to oversee the developing studies of the various scientific committees during the crisis. Because, after all, the pandemic proved that technocrats or politics are depended on the expertise and the knowledge of pandemic experts and that there is a great need to combine harmoniously the political will with the technical expertise.

5. Acknowledgement

The Author would like to thank Professor Theodosios Karvounarakis and Antigone Karvounarakis-Delton for their comments on the chapter. 


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