Rethinking national security in the wake of COVID-19

Authors: Jessica Shannon, Catherine Jones and Ingrid Carlson

This article appears as part of PwC’s Shaping tomorrow’s government series: six chapters outlining the challenges and opportunities governments will face after the pandemic. For additional insight on the future of healthcare, education, climate and more, read the whole series. Please note that the opportunities and risks identified within each archetype are representative examples and are not exhaustive.

COVID-19 has strained national safety and security systems around the world, forcing governments to make difficult trade-offs. Early actions taken by nations to tighten borders and implement lockdown measures limited the spread of the virus but came with economic and social consequences. Many governments have struggled to manage the pandemic effectively and at scale. Public safety agencies, such as police and homeland security, might also be facing funding challenges, as domestic violence, fraud and cybercrime, and political and social unrest have spiked during the pandemic. Additionally, the pandemic has exposed the fragility of supply chains.

Two decisions shape government's approach to safety and security

A government’s response to these problems is a bellwether, given the likelihood of future pandemics and other crises. The actions governments take will be based on two broad decisions:

Decision 1

Global vs. local orientation: Is my county’s national security best served through self-sufficiency or global cooperation?

Countries with a global orientation believe their national security is strongest when they help support regional, multilateral and global stability. In contrast, countries with a local orientation view national security as unrelated to and apart from broader global security and favour focusing on internal capacities and infrastructure. 

Decision 2

Centralised vs. decentralised government: Is national security the purview of the federal government alone or do local governments, the private sector and/or civil society play a role? 

Countries with a decentralised government allow local and municipal governments, in coordination with the private sector and civil service, to drive much of the decision making on national security matters and coordinate based on shared need and perceived threat.

Click on a box to learn more about the general government archetype it describes.

Centralised government

Decentralised government

Local orientation

Global orientation

Strong federal response to safety and security events with a focus on protecting industries essential to economic growth and physical security
  • A 'whole of government' approach is taken
  • Government supports domestic manufacturing, stockpiles of essential goods and nationalised critical infrastructure
  • Public–private cooperation is close
  • National security industries benefit from a powerful policy and regulatory framework
Strong regional alliances and global leadership, and alignment among public and private sectors and civil society
  • Government operates from a belief that national safety and security are tied to that of the world and region
  • Government cooperates with other national governments to strengthen regional supply chains
  • Government supports local industries to improve supply chain resilience
  • Government has strong regional and bilateral security agreements and involvement with multilaterals
Driven primarily by local authorities or the private sector, supported by a light regulatory framework that favours local industries
  • State and local cooperation are central to national security strategy
  • Any centrally devised policy and regulatory frameworks that exist can easily be implemented by state and local governments
  • Local safety and security policies are tied to critical infrastructure sectors
  • Local cooperation between public and private entities is strong
Local and municipal governments operating independently but in service of a national security vision that aligns with regional and international agendas; broad regulatory framework and few protectionist policies
  • Regional and municipal governments are vital to driving national safety and security
  • Economic security is an important component of national security and safety
  • Private sector plays a large role in national security
  • Governments might take a less forward-leaning approach to regional and international commitments

Opportunities and challenges for each archetypal approach

Centralised and locally orientated governments

Centralised and locally orientated governments take an expansive, whole-of-government approach to national security, and therefore have opportunities to collaborate and integrate across national agencies and with the private sector. They face risks if they fail to balance efficiency and transparency or if they hew exclusively to a local orientation. Citizens might feel that a centralised government is overreaching, or a lack of transparency might hinder buy-in or adherence to policies and erode public trust. Too much of a local orientation can create a myopic view of threats and potentially prevent collaboration with neighbouring states and institutions. 

Examples of actions that these governments can take to build national security resilience include: 

  • scaling and building trust in border screening processes and goods tracking by integrating biosecurity and health data

  • working with the private sector to create tools that power innovation in information sharing and operations among law enforcement, defence and intelligence agencies, even during non-crisis periods and among a greater set of actors

  • working closely with independent media to create transparent and consistent public messaging, to counter disinformation and to build public trust

  • identifying, incubating and supporting cottage industries that could be helpful in managing a range of potential threats and in building supply chain resilience and redundancy.

For instance, when COVID-19 first hit South Korea, the government was able to identify and isolate outbreaks, offer assistance to quarantining individuals to support compliance, provide government authorities wide access to personal health data for contact tracing, and establish public trust through transparent and coordinated media efforts. The government also worked to secure deals between international pharmaceutical companies and local manufacturers in order to establish an in-country pipeline for vaccine production and distribution.

Decentralised and locally orientated governments

Decentralised and locally orientated governments depend on local and municipal governments to create and coordinte a national response capability. Without strong leadership and a structured framework, though, these governments risk systemic inefficiencies and failures, broadscale confusion, and increased vulnerability from foreign influence. This is particularly true when it comes to coordination, potentially reducing the effectiveness of national-scale responses in times of emerging crises and prolonging the time to recovery.

Some actions these governments can take to build a strong, coordinated security apparatus in a decentralised system include:

  • establishing a national-level security culture, risk appetite and agile response ethos that create efficiencies and set consistent standards for local and municipal entities to follow

  • developing a regulatory and policy framework that supports the creation of national safety and security ‘champions,’ particularly in technology, while also defining the roles of local and municipal governments and the private sector in resource allocation and planning

  • boosting investments in domestic bio- and climate-security capabilities, such as vaccines, personal protective equipment and digital warning systems

  • convening the media and private sector to co-create a transparent public communications strategy that clearly conveys to the public the roles and responsibilities of local and federal governments during times of crisis. 

Switzerland’s governance is shared among federal, state and local entities. Although the Federal Council has overseen border crossing, public health measures and biosecurity, it has been non-federal authorities and the media bringing the public onboard with protocols rather than the government dictating them. The government has long identified vital supply chains (e.g., within agriculture, because Switzerland produces 60% of the food it consumes). And the country was already well-positioned for supply chain resilience because of the Federal Act on Economic Supply, which makes the private sector—subsidised by state governments—responsible for maintaining a three- to six-month supply of vital resources (staple foods, energy, medicines, agricultural inputs and more). 

Centralised and globally orientated governments

Centralised and globally orientated governments have opportunities to build strong alliances with regional and international partners. In these governments, national security and law enforcement agencies must balance coordinated action with independence. For instance, citizens might feel disenfranchised or deprioritised—that their leaders care more about the global good than the local good. The national government also could face pressure from private security companies and the public if those groups believe national supply chain resilience is at risk due to regional sourcing or regional competition. 

National and international security alignment, coupled with centralised oversight, provides some unique opportunities for action, including:   

  • aligning on crisis protocols with regional neighbours—particularly those with hard-to-secure borders or active population and trade flows—and working with international organisations to manage the movement of people and goods

  • creating blocs to support the development of regionally based industries and supply chains that will build regional competitive advantage and economies of scale

  • using innovative technologies and engaging different stakeholders to create mechanisms for enhanced multilateral information sharing among allied intelligence and law enforcement agencies. 

For instance, Ghana took a proactive, whole-of-government approach to COVID-19 before the first cases in Ghana were even recorded, doing crisis readiness assessments, conducting screening training at airports and other ports of entry, increasing screenings at health facilities, and mandating pre-testing and on-arrival testing at ports of entry. These efforts have continued throughout the pandemic, with the government offering generous social safety and socioeconomic measures for the population and allotting significant funding and resources to the country’s preparedness and response plan. These actions, coupled with active cooperation with regional and international multilateral organisations, have exemplified Ghana’s early response to COVID-19.

Decentralised and globally orientated governments

Decentralised and globally orientated governments tend to have free market systems that encourage economic growth and innovation, including in the national security sector. This creates opportunities for countries to be flexible in choosing how to maintain national security sovereignty and be good global citizens. However, these governments risk having an uneven and uncoordinated response to large-scale, national crises. If not deliberately considered and managed, the interests of vulnerable populations might be overshadowed by private-sector interests. Inequality could increase, and a lack of access to social programmes and safety nets could lead to protests, civil unrest and other types of destabilisation. 

Actions these governments can take to bolster security and safety include: 

  • working with global and regional governments to align on risk appetite and create regional frameworks for common security threats—and enabling agility at the state and local level to implement complementary or standardised security principles

  • incentivising private-sector innovation on security solutions that can be implemented locally and regionally and in a coordinated manner with other governments

  • creating more efficient and integrated law enforcement systems by forging relationships with municipalities in neighbouring states, or by using digital technologies to strengthen existing relationships

  • improving innovation, efficiency, resilience and potentially the scope of resources for supply chains specific to national security by expanding regional trade agreements with neighbouring free-market states. 

Germany, with its 16 federal states, has a balanced approach to its federated system of governance. Legislative responsibility sits largely at the national level and implementation responsibility at the municipal level. There are varying levels of coordination across all entities. During the pandemic, this meant the federal government made the call to shut down national borders to all but German citizens—calling on European countries to coordinate their approach to border closures—but left specific restrictions up to individual federal states. 

Safety and security challenges will require greater coordination in the future

All governments, regardless of archetype, will face an increasingly complicated landscape of threats from state and non-state actors, both outside and inside their countries' borders, including threats stemming from climate-related occurrences. These events will almost certainly be more and more novel, and countering them will require innovative thinking and tools. And governments will have to take a multi-stakeholder approach to managing and mitigating situations that were once solely their domain. In addition to taking tactical steps—such as creating plans to diminish supply chain vulnerabilities, establishing clear communication channels and reviewing the regulatory landscape—the following are strategic actions all governments can take, in conjunction with the private sector and civil society, to prepare for upcoming threats: 

  • Anticipate and plan for a broader range of threats and crises. Governments can create playbooks for a great number of differentiated crises. War gaming, scenario planning, defence exercises, stakeholder mapping and other planning activities will give all stakeholders an understanding of the scope of potential threats and their role in managing those threats. This preparation will allow for a more efficient and effective transition into crisis mode when the need occurs. 

  • Create social protections. Governments can plan for and establish public policies and programmes that protect citizens, particularly the most vulnerable, in times of crisis. These policies and programmes might include crisis-specific social safety nets and local support services, help for businesses in keeping workers on payrolls, and support for children and parents in continuing schooling. 

  • Plan for the secondary crisis. A crisis can spawn other crises, including disruption of vital supply chains, an influx of refugees into a neighbouring country, displacement of people from one area to another within a single country, a surge in domestic violence or a spike in organised crime. Nations can anticipate these possibilities and take a whole-of-government approach to plan for resource allocation, supply chain resilience, social services and trauma support, housing and feeding, family reunification, and voluntary return and repatriation. It’s vital that governments work with the private sector, civil society and other countries in the region. 

To address national safety and security concerns, governments, regardless of archetype, will need to become flexible, agile and innovative—all attributes that can be challenging for a bureaucratic public sector. But by working with local and municipal governments, the private sector and civil society, national leaders create the best chance of protecting their citizens and infrastructure against increasingly complex threats and crises. 

For additional information on the defence and security sectors' role in addressing global crises, please see our report Evaluating and learning from the pandemic response.

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