Réflexes publics – Investigation on public resilience in times of crisis

Posted on 28 May 2020 par Sylvine Bois-Choussy

Is the future of public action being fabricated before our very eyes, in the multiple and spontaneous innovations or other institutional tinkering brought by the current crisis, brutal and unexpected? The farther the “end of the crisis” seems, the more we need to understand what is going on “during the crisis”, the questions it raises and the responses it seems to offer.

How to build on these unprecedented experiences to design public capacities adapted to the world to come? How to anticipate the perverse effects of their transition to everyday practice? Toward which new work priorities does this lead us, to support the resilience of our territories in the perspective of future crises?


It is with these questions in mind that we initiated this collaborative investigation on public transformations in times of crisis. Collaborating with a group of public innovation labs and public agents, the aim is to highlight and support the experiments that will shape more resilient public action for tomorrow. Conceived as an archeology of a future in the making, the approach combines the collection and analysis of local examples, the formulation of assumptions and the design of new public approaches adapted to this uncertain context. This investigation builds on our previous work on the various dimensions of public transformation and comes to challenge these in this new context

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The project aims to draw on the lessons of the investigation and with the local governments involved, make progress on the most important various work priorities to build more resilient public action; these will be delivered to and serve to inspire the teams in power in the fall of 2020 after the municipal elections and more generally the public transformation sector to ensure municipalities learn from the actions taken during this crisis and ultimately shape future local governance.

Conducted between May and September 2020, this project brings together the 27th Region (with the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies),  Partie Prenante, Vraiment Vraiment, as well as a network of public innovation labs and practitioners working on territorial resilience.

An overview of controversies and areas of transformations

We have collectively identified several controversies to help us put into perspective the ongoing proliferation of innovations. This list of tensions helps to orient us in the changing and uncertain context we are currently in. Public transformations in times of crisis is far from being unequivocal and stabilized. On the contrary, it illustrates the tensions at work in the public sector and the various stakeholders positions on what is desirable or not. This overview is an “hypothesis 0”, which will be refined over the course of the investigation.

The ‘fields’ are not exhaustive either, and the list may be enriched along the way. They refer to tangible phenomena observed during the crisis, at the crossroads between public transformation and resilience. They serve as markers to guide our archaeological excavation in public administrations, and help us imagine new priorities and future experimentations to consolidate more resilient forms of public action.

Controversy #1 – Citizen participation: towards new developments or downturns? 

Participatory democracy systems seem to have been the first affected by the consequences of lock down (and in France by the postponement of the 2nd round of municipal elections). Suspended for several weeks, will citizen participation manage to regain its full place once the emergency is over ? What are the consequences of this temporary absence of citizen consultation on the actions implemented during the crisis? How to (re) give space to the debate when it comes to fighting the pandemic and its consequences?

[Field 1.1] Participatory budgets. While they were on the way to becoming an essential device for involving citizens in public action, many participatory budgets were stopped with the crisis. At the same time, some municipalities have diverted their use to become strategic tools for mobilizing residents. What evolution will these changes influence ?

[Field 1.2] Concertation process in tactical urbanism. With the end of the lock down, local governments have transformed public space to match new sanitary requirements (new bicycle paths, pedestrianization of certain spaces, etc.). These improvements, even if they often follow on from previous policies, were implemented urgently without always involving citizens in their design. How will these be received by the various users (pedestrians, motorists, cyclists, local residents, etc.)? Are these quick and dirty solutions going to last? Should we imagine an ex-post citizen participation?

Controversy #2 – Contributory democracy: increased mobilization of citizens or outsourcing of public action? 

With the crisis situation came a great diversity of new civic initiatives: from food distributions to masks makers, volunteers helping in nursing homes or neighborhood solidarity. What place have local governments and public administrations given to these contributions to the common good? How did the cohabitation between bureaucratic ways of working and these more or less spontaneous collective actions? And above all, how does this episode reshapes the co-production of public action?

[Field 2.1] Citizen volunteers contributing to public action. Many local governments have proposed citizens to volunteer and contribute to tackle the health and social crises. How were these groups established and organised? What was asked / offered to the volunteers? What were their autonomy and what compensation ? How was this distributed action dealt with (or not) by the administration and the elected officials? How was this considered by the usual social and solidarity stakeholders (NGOs, social centers, etc.) ? How may this be sustained to contribute to the resilience of regions, while facing acute crises or in everyday life?

[Field 2.2] Public-commons partnerships. Strong mobilization of makers to produce protective equipment, food collections and distributions, engagement of third spaces in solidarity actions … the crisis reveals the ability of citizen groups and companies to provide solutions to the crisis. But it also raises the many obstacles to integrating their contribution, that often don’t match bureaucratic standards. What can we learn from the crisis on the good articulation between the public and the common?

Controversy #3 – Digitalisation and administrative process : hyper customization of new standardization?

With no physical contact allowed, the lock down has profoundly transformed the relationship between administrations and residents. It forced local governments to adjust administrative procedures to adapt to this new context and avoid weakening the situation of citizens already deeply affected by the crisis. How have these changes been experienced on both sides of a digital interface? What will remain of these new forms of interaction?

[Field 3.1] New mediations. With the physical distancing, many administrative actions have become 100% digitalized during the crisis. Administrations have invented new mediations to maintain accessibility for residents. What learnings to promote access for all can we draw from these ? What are the lessons drawn by the front line agents of this forced digitalization?

[Field 3.2] Digital targeting and handling of resident data. To improve the care of fragile users, some local governments have reused the “heat waves” data files for new purposes … Does this open the door to the creation of structured data sets to better understand social and environmental fragility in the territories? With what effects (perverse or not) for the administration and users?

[Field 3.3] Access to social benefits and other rights Several administrations have adopted automatic renewal of rights (social benefits, residence permit, etc.) : does this induces a transition from access to law by “opt in” (act to justify a right ) access to the law by “opt out” (de facto access, act to unsubscribe)? How? with what effects on the relationship between the administration and the user?

Controversy #4 – Internal management: strengthening of a shared culture or widening of the gap between the various professions?

Whether or not they had a Action Continuity Plan (ACP), all local governments had to tinker around urgently to make the best use of available resources. This may have strengthened collective cohesion with a feeling of all “in the same boat” regardless of sectors or hierarchical level. Sometimes crisis management has led to a mismatch between the burnout of frontline officers and the bored-out of other services artificially shut down. How do these adjustments have or will shake up organizational charts? What learning can we draw about the profession of public agent and its future?

[Field 4.1] Reassignment of public agents to new tasks In the most agile local governments, crisis management has led to change the activity of a large number of public agents, often on a voluntary basis. The crisis has also shaken up work rhythms, temporalities, nature of missions. New systems have been put in place, such as the metropolitan civic reserves, allowing agents to carry out missions accomplished by NGOs during their working time. What are the impacts of these reassignment on public agents, on the quality of service, on organizations? What should be done with the demonstration of this collective capacity for versatility and adaptation, in contrast with an often too rigid view of organizational charts?

[Field 4.2] Middle management. Entre les décideurs aux manettes sur les choix stratégiques et les agents de terrains à l’initiative « sur le front », quel rôle a pu jouer le management intermédiaire ? Comment ses missions se recomposent-elles, et quelle(s) culture(s) du management cela dessine ? Between decision-makers in charge of strategic choices and field public agents on the front line of the crisis, what role did middle management play? How were its missions reshaped, and how does this affect management culture (s) in the future ?

Controversy #5 – Territorial and institutional cooperation: withdrawals or more intense connections?

Covid-19 revealed the extent of the interdependencies between the various public institutions, whether horizontal (between local governments of neighboring territories), vertical (between levels of local governments and with the State) or diagonal (with several public players). Like industry, pharmacy or the food industry, public action value chains is made up of multiple links. Starting with this observation, several reactions are possible: quest for autonomy or even self-sufficiency, even if it means distancing oneself from usual partners or entering into competition (on the purchase of masks or aid to businesses); or search for the best role sharing, by playing on differentiation and complementarity with other stakeholders. The reality is in between, but with varying approaches!

[Field 5.1] Sharing of resources between public administrations. Patronage of skills with the provision of agents, grouped orders to limit costs … On the ground, the situation does not always correspond to the war of egos prized by journalists. What were the prerequisites for such rarely spontaneous cooperation? What are the levers and the brakes? Beyond the health crisis, how may these cooperation constitute a response to the social and environmental challenges we face?

[Field 5.2] Shared competences between various scales of public action/players (state, various levels of local governments, ..) Despite the attempts to define distinct competences blocks, many topics overlap between several institutions: Education, Economy and businesses, Social solidarity. Have these overlaps been a factor of disorganization or a lever for resilience? Why did the crisis produced, depending on the territory, confidence or distrust?

Controversy #6 – Decision making: uncertainty planning or de facto centralization?

Covid-19 revealed the need to change practices quickly and drastically, over the course of a few days – sometimes a few hours – shaking up the various decision-making levels of public action. On the one hand, public action was able to quickly take decisions based on incomplete data / informations and on pragmatic logics of opportunity; in uncertainty, the chains of decisions are clarified and the legitimacy of a decision relies more on authority figures. On the other hand, there is a severe lack of relevant data to respond to the crisis, and a very strong tension to produce health and social data in a fast way.

[Field 6.1] Prioritization criteria in emergency situations. During the crisis, local governments reorganized around essential services and priority actions. Emergency decision-making practices (crisis cells, regular meetings, delegations of signing authority, etc.) have multiplied to simplify the daily lives of public agents in the field. Beyond forecast planning, how was the actual decision-making organized? Does this reshape the way in which an action, a profession, a public service mission is considered a priority or not?

[Field 6.2] Data uses and access. During the crisis, transparency and accessibility of public information in real time became necessary. Real-time maps, quantified information on many different public dimensions… Does this establish the strategic and democratic importance of consolidating and publishing essential data? In addition, some choices which could take months have been extremely made. Public procurement conditions (ecological, social criteria, economic justice) have been revised. Some projects on hold have been suddenly drastically accelerated to meet the new constraints. On what information and on what foundations were these arbitrations taken? What can we learn from this about the anticipation capacity of administrations?

Outcomes and timeline

Two deliverables

  • A mapping of controversies: it is an evolutionary representation of the tensions exerted by the crisis on the dynamics of previous public transformation. It is a visual and critical orientation tool, which allows us to step back and put into perspective the learnings from the investigation. Each step of the method will be an opportunity to develop, nurture and reformulate the hypotheses
  • An overview of futureopportunities, experiments, and priorities for public innovation labs and local governments: The overview allows  to understand in one glance the diverse future opportunities identified over the course of the project, including their intentions, means, conditions of successes, and first steps.


May – Launching workshop with partner local governments, definition of the investigation fields and methodology 

June – Investigation in 6 controversies, with a minimum of 5 interviews per topic 

July – collective workshop #1: Analysis of the outcomes, mapping controversies

August / September – Collective workshop #2: Definition of the experimentation 

September – Publication of the outcomes

Would you like to know more or to contribute ? Write us :  sbois-choussy@la27eregion.fr.