Major EU research project explores new robust public solutions in turbulent times
The financial crisis, droughts and floods, refugee flows, COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine are some of the recent examples of crises that public sectors around the world have had to deal with. Each crisis has disrupted the ability of the public sector to deliver stable public service as well as planned systemic changes. As a society, we therefore face the question: If every two years all plans go out the window, how can the public sector realize the pressing ambitions of protecting democracy and the welfare state while transitioning to greater equity and sustainability?
This is the starting point for a new international research project led by Professor Jacob Torfing from Roskilde University. The project ROBUST has received 3 million EUR from the EU Horizon Europe programme to build this knowledge.
Previously, the approach to public governance has been characterised by a perception of long periods of stable bureaucratic operation, occasionally interrupted by crisis incidents and crisis management, but this picture may need to be updated or even to be reversed.
"Today, there is an almost permanent state of crisis, with the public sector hit by multiple, frequent and overlapping crises, adding to the level of turbulence in society, which is already high due to globalisation, technological developments and the limits placed on our growth model by nature. The growing turbulence takes the form of unpredictable, uncertain, inconsistent, complex problems and threats that are constantly changing. The public sector and public governance must become much better at dealing with this growing turbulence," says Jacob Torfing.
The new research project brings together researchers from Roskilde University and eight other European universities. Case studies will be conducted in eight different EU countries, two cases in each country, focusing on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of a turbulent event. Based on the local cases, the researchers will look specifically at how different actors, from the EU system to the national and regional levels and down to the individual municipality, are working together to create robust solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are bringing together strong partners from Western, Central and Eastern Europe, and we hope that the lessons from the empirical studies will help us understand how to deliver more robust public governance in the future. Precisely because we end up with so many cases, we will be able to say quite systematically what factors need to be present in order for robust management of turbulence to succeed," says Jacob Torfing.
The power of robustness
Robustness is a central concept in the research project.
"The answer to turbulence is what we call robustness. Robustness is about deliberately changing in order to maintain some basic societal functions and pursue these in new and perhaps even better ways," explains Jacob Torfing.
An example is the COVID-19 pandemic, where the public sector still had to help the unemployed find a job, provide care and education for children and young people, and provide care for the elderly, but found new ways of doing this because the pandemic created new and different conditions.
"When you are in the middle of a turbulent upheaval, you may not necessarily find the perfect solution, as we saw during the pandemic. But you try what we call “good enough solutions”, i.e. solutions that are apparently adequate, and then you make continuous adaptations to the solution to deal with the changing conditions that constantly arise in the turbulent environment. At the same time, you keep open the possibility that it may be necessary to go in a completely new direction. Should we shut down, should we open up, should we test more, should we test less, or should we do it in a completely new way?" says Jacob Torfing.
Robust solutions are about more than returning to the pre-crisis state.
"The point is that the original equilibrium is often neither possible to recreate nor particularly attractive. The strength of the robustness concept is that we try to create change in response to turbulence in order to continue to provide some basic functions, but at the same time we are trying to reach a new place that may be better or more attractive. For example, the US is looking to replace old 'black' jobs in the coal industry with new 'green' jobs in the renewable energy sector in an attempt to ensure high levels of employment," he explains.
In the research project, the researchers will look at several different factors for the success of robust governance. These include the interaction between the EU, national, regional and local levels, the collaboration between different actors such as public agencies and private firms and associations, and the pragmatic combination of different governance instruments. The researchers will also explore how the knowledge base for robust governance is shaped so that expert knowledge is harnessed, while also ensuring both political and popular support.
Build back better
An example of the ambition to not simply rebuild what existed beforehand, but to use a crisis to create something, is Joe Biden's so-called 'Build Back Better Plan'. This was an economic plan that Joe Biden launched as a US presidential candidate and which he took with him to the White House. One of the ambitions of the plan is to generate new development against the background of, among other things, a jobs crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic in the US.
'Build back better' became a kind of motto for Joe Biden.
“One of the ideas behind the phrase ‘build back better’ is that you still have to perform a basic function of getting people jobs, but it may be that instead of the old black jobs, you have to create new green jobs," says Jacob Torfing.
Contributing insights to practitioners
One of the objectives of the research project is to contribute knowledge that can be used at the different levels of public governance. This could be, for example, in the new EU Directorate-General, the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), which is intended to prevent, detect and respond rapidly to future health crises.
The project will build the ROBUST Learning Hub – a mixed online and in real life learning community to ensure that results are rooted in practical concerns and taken up by relevant actors.
"We hope that the insights from the project can be used by practitioners at all levels. For example, we would like to contribute new ideas to this new EU entity on how to move beyond the old division between stable operations and crisis management, to a more permanent, robust management of a turbulent baseline. That's the goal," says Jacob Torfing.
The project will start on 1 October 2022.
About the project:
ROBUST Crisis Governance in Turbulent Times – Mindset, Evidence, Strategies
Budget: Approximately DKK 22 million (EUR 3 million)
Roskilde University's share: Approximately DKK 5.3 million
Project start: 1 October 2022
- Roskilde University (project manager)
- Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia
- University of Turin, Italy
- University of Antwerp, Belgium
- Nord University, Norway
- University of Zaragoza, Spain
- Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary
- Masaryk University, Czechia
- Universiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands
- European Public Health Alliance