COVID Crisis Management with Inge Neven

Author: Valentine Dautricourt

One year ago, Inge Neven joined QuantIM - the network of seasoned independent professionals of Quanteus Group and BrightWolves. She immediately started an assignment as Crisis Manager corona Test&Trace at CoCom in Brussels. She is the general responsible for the Covid administration that is related to the Brussels government. Inge works for ministers Maron, Vervoort, and Van den Brandt, responsible for managing the project and the administration that executes decisions made by different government bodies. In an interview, she shares her story as Crisis Manager at the heart of the pandemic!


***


How does it feel to work right at the heart of a topic we are all surrounded with?


It’s both fascinating and very challenging. The project’s enormous societal impact is why I really am happy I took up this challenge. It has now been more than a year, which I never expected. The contracts are continuously being prolonged, and now we’re a team of more than 90 people (I have recruited more than 70 consultants and 8 internal people in one year). In addition, the political context that goes into this project is completely new for me; you soon learn how to navigate these things and find good working practices.

How did your role evolve alongside the evolutions of this pandemic?

When I started, I was the head of the health inspection team, which is still the case. But this team only consisted of four people who were working at CoCom; we joined in with a team of 5 consultants at that time. They were responsible for the follow-up of the existing clusters and limiting the propagation of the virus. The very first thing I did was figuring out how to set priorities when many clusters were appearing. Next, we set up the call center just one week after my arrival. The key goal was to contain different clusters in elderly homes, schools, companies as best as possible.


A few weeks later, we already had to think about preventing a second wave. I then had to conceptualize how to construct a team that you can extend and reduce depending on the severity of the pandemic. In the meantime, we noticed a demand for tests to be able to go on vacation. But the hospitals refused to test holidaymakers since they argued that their duty lay towards the sick, not healthy people. So I organized alternative test facilities. Firstly, we set up a temporary collaboration with the hospitals. Then, very quickly, we created eight test centers in the Brussels region with the municipalities and other organizations like the Red Cross and some hospitals. In the meantime, they perform tests for symptomatic and asymptomatic people.


In November, we arrived at the third phase: the vaccination campaign. We had to start from scratch as vaccination is a competence transferred in the 6th state reform, just before the crisis. On top of this, we had very little information about the quantity of the vaccines, how they could be administered, who would be eligible, and how we could organize this campaign. In three months, I recruited twenty people to help set up the ten vaccination centers for our region, which are again managed operationally by the municipalities, some hospitals, and the Red Cross.


We also had to launch a sensibilization campaign, which is vital in a big metropole city like Brussels (did you know Brussels is the 2nd biggest metropole in the world after Dubai? With 174 nationalities, about 30% of persons without access to the health system and a very high digital fracture), with many people being difficult to reach. Its goal is to ensure everybody gets vaccinated in vaccination centers, local antennas with sensibilization on the weekly markets, or at home.


In parallel, as the new variants started popping up, we had to find out how to adjust our testing, tracing, and vaccination strategy.


Now that we’ve put the basics in place, we need to maintain everything we’ve created and sustainably implement it in the health system of the Brussels area. The idea is to manage disease prevention and control in our region, and create equitable access to healthcare for everyone. I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind from the get-go. The objective is to step by step create a sustainable system where a basic team can ensure day-to-day operations. And then, when another crisis might arrive, they can create partnerships and recruit external people to manage the broader picture we’ve been setting up now.


You are designing a strategy to implement very quickly in this fast-changing context. What is the main challenge from going from strategy to implementation in that setup?


There really is no time to think about a strategy because we’re constantly in the implementation stage. This means that you’re always switching between thinking about strategies and the ongoing operational issues. I keep telling my team that our two most important characteristics are agility and flexibility. The situation can change overnight and put everything on hold. The AstraZeneca vaccine, for example, was very promising at first. Then suddenly, we couldn’t administer it to people under 41 anymore.


We felt a lot of resistance, the whole campaign was questioned, and we needed to reorganize it. You have to keep the overview in mind and make sure that everything is implemented quickly. If you’re then able to make the change, though, that feels extremely rewarding. Still, you’re constantly under stress.


What do you do to disconnect from work and “recharge your batteries”?


I’ve learned that things take a wrong turn if I don’t create little moments of disconnection. I try to go jogging or biking sometimes, and I have a family who also needs my attention. I make sure everyone knows I don’t normally work on Friday evenings, so people will only contact me for urgent matters. You have to be very strict on these things because when I don’t disconnect, I can lose energy, losing the overview. That is a big challenge as I’m keeping an eye on every aspect of the pandemic. Because we’re a small region, our people follow up on multiple topics, contrary to those in Flanders and Wallonia. All the more reason to disconnect once in a while. Creating a capable team also enables you to delegate tasks.


Why did CoCom choose you?


I think it was the combination of all my experiences. I’ve been doing a lot of change management and transformation projects and working for an NGO in Africa for four years. The latter gave me a feel for situations like the Brussels area, with many nationalities and people who do not have access to everything, so you really need a specific approach. Also, I have been working in roles as a COO. I think my past jobs prove that I’m agile and flexible, and know-how to deliver. That’s something that I feel is lacking in the normal way of working: many people in the administration cabinets don’t have this experience. So they come up with bright ideas but are not sure how to put them into practice, where we, as consultants, can make the difference.


Could you tell us the story of how you started as a freelance?


That was also a coincidence. I was working at Imec in a Chief of Staff and CDIO position. I wasn’t really feeling well in my role, and I was in a midlife crisis, thinking about my next step after 20 years of work. So, I decided to quit at the end of March. Quanteus Group/QuantIM contacted me to see if I would be interested in the position of crisis manager. I knew Kris through our shared passion for wine and was immediately into this challenge because of my availability, and magnitude, and societal impact of the problem.


I worked as a consultant at the beginning of my career, but afterward, I had full-time positions in companies for a few years at a time. So transformation management really speaks to me. When things are in place, I’m ready for the next challenge, be it as an internal person or a consultant. I feel like my role here as a manager is truly part of a team that delivers the best it can for the whole company.


Within Quanteus Group, we have a young management consulting company – BrightWolves – with fresh talents passionate about business transformation. What would be your one piece of advice for these consultants starting or a few years into their career?


For newcomers, I think consultancy is the best starting experience you can have, especially in a nice environment like BrightWolves. You have the opportunity to see a lot of different companies and domains and to learn a lot from peers and experienced people. So for me, the consultancy has been the best learning school.


How does the post-Covid world look like in your dreams, and what would we need to get there?


I really hope we can go back to the world we knew very soon. However, some changes, like working from home, are here to stay because we have experienced how productive we can be on Teams. I am convinced that we will go back to work a few days a week, though, but have fewer live meetings as people know you can meet properly in a digital way, although it’s not always ideal.


I also think that some people will be afraid for the rest of their lives. They’ll keep wearing masks and stay away from restaurants, unfortunately. So I really hope we will learn to live with these risks again, find coping mechanisms and come to a new normal, and that people can hug again because it’s painful to see that we’re getting afraid of physical contact.


So vaccinations can be the way out?


I’m absolutely convinced that we need group immunity, which we can only build when many people are vaccinated. Then, even if some vaccines are less protective against a variant, there will be people protected. There are also rumors of having a third vaccine dose by the end of the year. That would also be helpful against the new variants. So I’m quite sure that if we go through with this, we should get out soon. I also think we need to act based on common sense, like quarantining yourself if you’ve been in touch with someone positive or staying home if you’re sick.


Are you optimistic about the path we’re on right now?


Yes, I think we’re doing everything to get ready by the summer break. I think it will be helpful to see if we can already have the mass events the press is writing about. But I suggest having some smaller gatherings this summer to see what happens. As more people get vaccinated, we can gradually open up and even allow events without the COVID safe certificate. I really hope we can quickly go back to the normal situation, but we will have to act responsibly for our co-citizens. That starts with getting vaccinated...