What Kind Of Governments Will Arise From The Pandemic?

By Huda Al Hashimi, Juha Leppänen, Geoff Mulgan, Marcos Bonturi.

Coronavirus is a global crisis. Possibly the worst we have experienced since the Second World War. Most crises catalyse societal change: The French Revolution triggered a global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Institutions such as the European Union and United Nations were established or initiated in the aftermath of the Second World War.

While governments have been taking major action to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, the fact is that governments were not ready. Essential question is, how will this global pandemic change the way governments operate in the future?

We asked a group of globally leading experts to describe one specific change that will take place in governments as a result of COVID-19. 

All contributors to this article are members of the Global Innovation Council. 


The Invaluable Role Of Government Agility By Huda Al Hashimi

COVID-19 is a crisis of historic proportions, which the world is still confronting and governments are responding with a variety of new measures and policies that were considered unimaginable early this year. However, governments have taken diverging approaches to tackle the virus and its economic implications. We have seen varieties of measures and responses adopted by governments; while some governments were slow to react on a number of fronts, others were better positioned to respond with more efficient, innovative and firm decisions. The current health and economic situation have attracted public attention to follow the measures and procedures in which governments are leading their countries.

As citizens expect more from their governments, whether in healthcare, social welfare or economic aid, we expect to see a major transformation that requires reinvention of government functions and how they operate and deliver services. Governments are working hard to find innovative and rapid ways of designing, delivering, and communicating governmental policies.

Governments need to be more agile to keep up with our fast-paced, uncertain and complex realities and to better prepare for the future. Public organizations must aim at becoming adaptive, dynamic and responsive to address the current and future demographic, socioeconomic and political implications while building a strong citizen-centric culture that quickly responds to the needs of their citizens. 

Agility can be accelerated at all levels of government, embedding it in leadership, culture, systems and practices within governmental organizations. In the UAE, we have taken the first steps and introduced agility as a core principle to all governmental functions, allowing it to evolve continuously to increase certainty and simplicity. This has been particularly useful in the first phase of COVID-19; the UAE Federal Government was able to rely on 2400 available government e-services to ensure a quick and smooth transition to our current normal. Furthermore, we quickly adopted and fast-tracked new policies to overcome various challenges across all sectors, and more recently, we took a step further when government leaders and world experts gathered in a 3-day virtual meeting to develop a strategy for the post-COVID-19 era in sectors such as: economy and technology, social welfare, healthcare, education, and food security among others. These measures, and more, will ensure that we come out of the crisis stronger as we are aiming to be a truly agile government. 

Agile governments will be better positioned to pursue more responsive, flexible and innovative solutions to address a wide range of challenges in the area of policy-making, regulations and service delivery functions while taking advantage of emerging opportunities to shape positive changes and achieve better results in short-term or long-term objectives. These principles stand as important as ever now when governments are tackling overlapping economic and health issues. We are not in the capacity of trusting old principles of governance.

In an era of ambitious national goals and global complexity, governments need to understand how to balance transformation and stability to achieve resilience.  An Agile Government is a government that excels in achieving this balance. 


Moving Beyond Crisis To Drive Needed Change By Marcos Bonturi

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging some basic assumptions about the functioning of our societies, presenting us with stark and unpalatable trade-offs. Governments are faced with difficult policy choices and are responding in a dramatic and unprecedented way.  

In the midst of this terrible crisis, one positive aspect has been the expanding space for innovation within the public sector. A wave of change has been unlocked. The expansion and acceleration of digital service delivery is the most visible aspect of this trend, but there has been progress elsewhere, including on issues as disparate as teleworking and regulatory policy.

Reform is hard, and crises, despite their costs, can accelerate innovation, providing the space and opportunity for change to occur. The urgency of a crisis demands a response, and resistance may be easier to overcome. In other words, the crisis is serving as an “external force”, pushing societal acceptance of change over the necessary threshold.

The question then becomes, what happens after the crisis? How can we ensure that progress is not reversed, and even more importantly, how can we ensure that the space for innovation in the public sector continues to expand?

Many governments will now start taking a closer look at their ‘engines of change’. While changing government operations is hard, the benefits are becoming ever clearer in the time of COVID-19 response. New Zealand’s wellbeing budgeting poses a significant opportunity for crafting innovative budgetary solutions for COVID-19 responses. Other countries are following the way by introducing out-of-the-ordinary policies into basic governmental functions. What is common in these innovative initiatives is that they require moving beyond the simple and deceptive mantra of efficiency. Innovation in government requires the acceptance of enough slack to absorb and prepare for the next crisis, and recognizing that new approaches and new methods are wasteful before they are worthy.

The crisis has reinforced views that governments can do things differently if they need to. The challenge is to ensure that they are still “able and willing” when this whole thing is over. 


Covid-19 As A Practice Round For Governments By Juha Leppänen

Historically, the role of the government has expanded, rather than deflated, in the aftermath of global crises. We have seen the rise of many of our most important public institutions as a direct or indirect solution or result to large scale societal crisis, when trust in the capacity of the government as a leader through hardships has been higher than normal. Covid-19 pandemic is no exception.

When we emerge from Covid-19 to our new normal, we will find ourselves facing an even bigger, uncontrolled and sectorally overlapping challenge. Finding solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate crisis requires proactive and vision-driven leadership from governments around the world. Covid-19 might end up being a perfect practice round.

Covid-19 pandemic has generated success stories of governments taking active leadership and using the full force of its economic capabilities, financing essential activities of society, leveraging information and pushing us forward in times of uncertainty. Throughout the world, we’ve seen the mobilization of massive support packages and economic stimulus efforts in a short period of time. We have seen governments investing in new, radical solutions to secure our wellbeing. Countries such as Bangladesh are exploring new ways of cross-sectoral collaboration to deliver emergency services for millions of people in need. Spain is considering basic income policies to match the growing need for financial support. All these – and more – are essential for successful governments of the 21st century.

In order to tackle the next looming crisis, we will need governments to lean in as proactive shapers of societal futures as they did during the Covid-19 crisis. An enabling role on the sidelines of change is not enough anymore, when active steering is needed. This includes, for example, innovating on new mechanisms on public finances or experimenting with new policies. Successful governments have to invest in transformative policies and create new capabilities through which selected transformations can be implemented. These capabilities include having well structured long-term governance approaches, feedback loops in the policy making system that enable continuous learning and willingness to move beyond existing operational silos.

Covid-19 crisis has put governments around the world into the limelight. In good or bad, there is no way out from the limelight as the next crisis looms in the horizon. Only governments that accept their role and start to steer proactively societies through the emerging waves are successful. Prize and punishment are equally significant: trust and legitimacy towards our public institutions. And the wellbeing of our planet and its people.


Using The Crisis To Remake The Government As Collective Intelligence By Geoff Mulgan

The current pandemic could be just a one-off blip, with normal service resuming once the worst of it is over. But it could be used to accelerate changes that were long overdue. This text focuses on one particular change in how governments operate that has been brought into sharp focus by the crisis.

For the last few decades it has become ever clearer that governments could be radically reorganising how they work, with much more use of data, and with government operating much more as a platform connecting people in multiple ways.  But these ideas have not been implemented much. It is true that many governments have used digital technologies to improve services to citizens, or for surveillance. But while the private sector has seen a dramatic shift with most of the world’s most valuable companies now organised around data and platforms there has been no comparable shift in the public sector. COVID-19 has the potential to change this.

The current crisis has forced attention onto how governments think, and how they use technologies to think and act fast. China’s disastrous early moves (denial, attacking whistle-blowers etc) confirmed the risks of constraining information flow. Since then a clutch of countries (including China as well as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) have used sophisticated methods to connect testing, contact tracing and management of quarantines. 

This required them to build what can be called intelligence assemblies – combining observation, interpretation, prediction and creativity. Essentially intelligence assemblies are the large scale equivalents of our own brains, which combine these various aspects of intelligence to support action and learning from that action. Such assemblies are now needed more than ever, and not just to help with the management of possible new waves of infection, or recovery from the crisis. 

Hopefully this experience will prompt governments to address the application of similar methods to other challenges. At their best such assemblies allow better anticipation of problems; better mobilisation of ideas and intelligence from all sources (there’s been extraordinary upsurge of collective intelligence in everything from the science of COVID to community responses that mobilise millions of people to help solve problems or improve services); and faster experimentation and learning. Whereas COVID 19 is a very urgent crisis similar methods could be used with much slower burn crises like climate change, or provision of care for an ageing population.

The challenge is that most governments don’t have teams with the expertise to do this well. Too many are stuck in essentially 19th century silos and mindsets. Their structures, processes and cultures tend to inhibit the smart use of 21st century platform models. But we should never waste a crisis. An incredible amount of  thought, creativity and commitment is going into the responses around us right now. Hopefully some of this will be used to remake government in ways that make it better suited to the challenges that lie ahead.

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