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Resilient Democracies: How Liberal Democracies Can Become Champions of Resilience

Around the globe, what lessons can be learnt from the corona era to help countries weather current and future shocks? It turns out that five governance capabilities are central to making democracies more resilient.

By Christof Schiller

As countries worldwide grapple with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, new crises such as the war in Ukraine and climate change are putting their resilience to the test. With complex challenges brewing, it is timely to focus on previous crises to answer the question: What makes a country crisis resilient?

As our most recent comparative analysis on the COVID-19 crisis resilience of 29 OECD and EU countries shows, well-organized democracies have weathered the coronavirus crisis better than their less-organized peers. Yet, even countries that top our resilience of governance ranking in the context of the COVID-19 crisis may show weaknesses in certain other crucial dimensions of their overall sustainable governance capacity; weaknesses that matter when facing other types of crises, and when confronting the one central question to which improved crisis resilience must ultimately contribute: How can sustainable policy results and a greater long-term orientation in politics be achieved?

For example, topping the list is New Zealand with its successful go-hard, go-early policy, compensated for gaps in the institutional preparedness of its health care system. However, the country needs to progress more decisively in its transformation towards a sustainable economy and close the gap in its research and innovation capacities (rank 17 out of 29) in order to deal with the looming climate crisis. Similarly, in place two came South Korea with its effective COVID-19 contact-tracing system but which ultimately revealed inadequate in protecting civil rights and weaknesses of its social security system. And yet, approaches taken by some of our frontrunner states contain takeaways that others can emulate to boost their resilience to future shocks.

1. Be prepared: Early Warning Systems & Crisis Preparation

South Korea is the only country surveyed that can be considered well prepared to deal with a health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. Ahead of the coronavirus, the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) had identified high-priority infectious diseases and had stockpiled vital medical supplies at national centers. Following the 2015 MERS pandemic, health authorities in South Korea were evaluated and reviewed. The government then expanded its ability to generate and share data across different administrative levels, increasing its responsiveness.

2. Be humble: Step-by-step translation of the best available knowledge and data into effective decisions

Knowledge is rarely in short supply but it is hard to transfer into effective policy decisions. In practice, this involves creatively resolving conflicting goals. During the pandemic, New Zealand was quickly able to provide real-time modelling and data analysis relating to containing COVID-19. Furthermore, information derived from this real-time modelling was quickly communicated to the public, clarifying future scenarios and boosting public acceptance of official decisions. In addition, it is key that governments review and adapt policies regularly. Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands and South Korea all succeeded in regularly checking the effectiveness of their policies, adjusting them to keep pace with the latest circumstances or research.

3. Be trustworthy: Communicate broadly, empathically, and effectively

Only a few countries in our sample earn top marks for crisis communication. New Zealand’s government communication, can be considered exemplary, at least during the pandemic’s early months. The Ardern administration familiarized the public with its four-tier alert system, as well as the idea behind its “go hard, go early” approach. This helped create a sense of collective solidarity around the pandemic response, while also emphasizing the importance of empathy. As the pandemic progressed, it is important that nations continually evaluate, adapt and coordinate crisis communication. In Finland, for example, as the public compliance with public health recommendations weakened over time, the government significantly increased the frequency with which it informed the public of its measures as well as the level of detail it provided. Like New Zealand, Finland was comparatively successful in controlling the spread of the virus in the first year thanks to a rapid, targeted and restrictive containment strategy.

4. Be flexible: Adjust responses to local concerns

One size never fits all. The pandemic showed the importance of combating the pandemic in a way that is coherent and sensitive to regional concerns. Here, New Zealand, South Korea, Belgium, Denmark, Greece and Sweden are frontrunners: National coordination was largely smooth and took into account local concerns. In Denmark, for example, the national health authority issued guidelines on the national coordination of hospital bed capacities. Moreover, a country-wide IT infrastructure was set up to monitor the distribution and redistribution of critical devices and protective gear in municipalities and regions. Regions have also cooperated with one another, admitting patients from places overburdened by corona patients.

5. Be innovative: Don’t hesitate to be inspired by others

Denmark responded comparatively well to the new challenges. Whereas testing strategies elsewhere were in their early stages, by April 2020 it had already created nationwide PCR-test infrastructure, called Testcenter Danmark.

Meanwhile, some other countries were able to evaluate their responses quickly, adjusting policies at short notice. This was particularly true of states with updated crisis management strategies. Canada for example, had evaluated its crisis management systems not least after the SARS epidemic. It significantly enhanced transparency, accountability and citizen participation, even during the coronavirus crisis, thanks to its well-developed Open Government platform, which offers comprehensive data on the government’s work during the crisis. In addition, Statistics Canada is assessing the pandemic’s impacts on individuals. Finally, New Zealand showed great readiness and willingness to learn from other countries’ experiences with pandemics. For example, through the NZ Covid Tracer app, which was modelled on a version from Singapore.


As we are beginning to understand the contours of what might become a century of permanent crisis, it is essential for democracies to reflect upon key factors to increase their resilience to shocks. At the global level, change will hinge on closing the growing gap between democracies that invest heavily in forward-looking and participatory governance approaches and those that do not. Only then can liberal democracies emerge as role models in the field of crisis resilience.

Dr. Christof Schiller heads the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators project (SGI) and is an expert on comparative public sector governance, employment and social policies and comparative welfare state reform