Government Talks with Rodney Ghali: “COVID-19 has fueled our experimentation activities”

In the midst of Covid-19, citizens throughout the world have searched for leadership and guidance from the government. How had the fundamental change looked like inside the government? Rodney Ghali from the Impact and Innovation Unit at the Government of Canada joined the Global Innovation Council’s webinar. 

“During the 152 years the government of Canada has operated, we have seen similar events, but nothing equally as disruptive.  And nothing at this scale. We needed to evolve our structures rapidly when the crisis started”, says Rodney Ghali, Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet. 

Canada is a mid-size country with a population of nearly 38 million citizens, which now has a total of 100 000 coronavirus cases and 8000 deaths. As in many countries in the world, health and economic impact have been significant. 

“Government’s role in the economy changed quickly after Covid-19. We have seen multibillion-dollar stimulus packages roll out to provide, for example, direct supports to the workforce as well as other complementary economic and social measures. Usually, the decision-making process to develop these types of policies takes months or years. Covid-19 accelerated this process to days and weeks”, Ghali says. 

How to build policies fast and implement them? Which capabilities help in responding to a crisis like this? At this scale, any government couldn’t be prepared to tackle all consequences of Covid-19, but Ghali can see some critical aspects of readiness. 

 “Broadly speaking, progressive thinking that incorporates experimental and innovative ideals is essential. Canada has benefitted from strong investments to robust engagement, co-design, and co-development of policies over the last number of years. These key skill sets were in place when Covid-19 arrived”, Ghali says. 

Covid-19 has certainly fueled experimentation and innovation. As an example, Ghali mentions that behavioural scientists that have worked tirelessly at Canada’s Privy Council Office developing and implementing new data collection approaches and behaviorally-informed interventions to learn more about citizen’s behaviour in a crisis and well as measures that can be taken to maintain important protective public health measures

“Most people feel that experimentation is a luxury; you do it only in a non-crisis situation. It’s clear that is not the case.  Moreover, when developing long-term policies in a post covid-19 context, governments will need to ensure we do not import traditional policy responses to what will likely be an unfamiliar policy terrain.  It simply won’t work.” 

Working horizontally across government and sectors has played a crucial role in this crisis. The outcomes that need to be achieved are collective. According to Ghali, there has been a rapid integration of national/sub-national governments and private sector efforts. Collaboration between local and central government has increased, and there has been a need for more participation and engagement, such as weekly meetings with the Prime Minister and his counterparts across sub-national governments. 

Overall, adopting a more iterative approach to policy design is a collective challenge. “The interesting undertone in being agile is the reality of imperfection. If we build policies fast, we need to accept that, we need to learn what works – or doesn’t work - and then adapt.  That is how sound, public sector experimentation helps us. Imperfection has been something that governments need to accept to develop something fundamentally new, that can bring about the important change and impact we are seeking”

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