Governments are on a mission to adapt to a fast-paced world
By Rabih Abouchakra and Michel Khoury
The New Context
We’re operating in a new world. We’ve moved from connected to ultra-connected. If a prototype is created in Manama, we can print it out in 3D a moment later in Abu Dhabi. With this remarkable speed of progress, unforeseen risks have arisen.
Globalization might have helped to raise hundreds of millions out of poverty, but states and institutions are finding it hard to keep up. Increased mobility has exacerbated the threat of a global pandemic and the rapid integration of the global economy is leading to rising greenhouse gas emissions, with the potential to trigger catastrophic climate change. Rising inequality and aging populations are giving rise to fragile societies. A growing urban population places strain on infrastructure and stress on natural resources. At the same time, today’s citizens have higher expectations and demand immediate gratification. When they can shop online at midnight, book, and bank from their smartphones, they expect governments to deliver the same level of service.
The Challenges to Governance
This new age has presented a triple threat to governance as older institutional structures have failed to evolve to meet new needs. Balancing these threats is not easy; it requires governments to keep the long-term future in plain sight, in a world defined by short-termism. A greater challenge is also upon us—doing better with fewer resources. This requires us to create resilient societies that drive sustainability, empower stakeholders and accommodate local needs.
If a response to this triple challenge isn’t found, any government can fail. Which government can withstand the pressure of disruptive shocks, and empower its citizens? Using our experience in government, we set about defining a “3S Framework.” Governments, we believe, must set themselves on a transformation agenda: “Steering with foresight, shaping smart delivery and sustaining progress.” It is an agenda that enables governments to reconcile short-termism with the long view, to do more with fewer resources and to balance the distribution of power to the bottom with top-down institutional capacity.
Steering with Foresight
We might not be able to predict the future with certainty, but we ought to prepare for it. Steering with foresight is about ensuring that governments look beyond short-term issues and think ahead to cope with the future. But it’s not one person’s job to do this. Harnessing the horsepower of an entire government, this capability must be institutionalized across the board. It requires the use of a growing number of tools for horizon scanning, scenario planning and foresight analysis. Long-term thinking should lead to the articulation of a well-defined vision. Without a dream or a goal, it becomes harder to provide a sense of future direction and focus minds on shared objectives. The realization of this vision needs to be driven by innovative institutions that focus on steering, not rowing—and that are able to overcome the traditional hurdles of governmental machinery. Long-term policy development should be supported by a smart regulatory system that is fit for purpose and regulations that represent a natural cascade of policy objectives.
Shaping Smart Delivery
Smart delivery might be a buzz term, but it is driven by very real priorities. The first priority is to ensure greater transparency of government performance while maintaining tight control over spending from the center. These are human problems that ought to have human solutions. Tight control over spending should be paired with less control over delivery. If governments harness their imagination, they must diversify the range of providers of services by leveraging new delivery models such as co-design and co-creation, encouraging ventures to spin out of the public sector. In the U.K. for instance, over 100 public service mutuals have been spun out from government and are delivering nearly $2.25 billion in services.
Another priority is driving a networked approach to achieve complete electronic integration and personalization of services. Dubai launched a Smart Government Establishment for example, intended to ensure that transactions can be completed on multiple platforms by harnessing cutting-edge technologies such as mobile, cloud computing and geospatial services.
The governments of this region in particular must institutionalize innovation through structured processes or functions that generate and activate ideas. But the model can only work where the government is a platform, rather than an originator and a catalyst for diffusion of successful experiments. Governments must compete with the private sector to attract and build a generation of entrepreneurial public servants that possess new skills in emerging critical fields, such as data science, cybersecurity, and behavioral economics. Finally, governments should welcome feedback as central to their success. This means proactively engaging with citizens and businesses to better recognize their shifting needs. It also means they have to be prepared to move resources—and retire them—when they reach their sell-by date.
Real progress is not simply a matter of achieving social and economic development. It is also a matter of how resilient these accomplishments are. We’ve seen it so often: a laudable institution is created to great fanfare, and five years later, collapses under the weight of a political wind. A sustainable approach to development can be enabled through policies and regulations, and effective institutions and tools, as well as through pioneering pilot initiatives, being a role model and building relevant capabilities. Carbon tax, for example, in British Columbia has decreased fuel use by 16 percent since 2008, sustainable city models as engines of smart development—Masdar City model in Abu Dhabi—are examples of initiatives that can be led by governments to address this pressing agenda.
A necessary complement of sustainability efforts is the capacity of a governance system to be resilient and bounce back, or even benefit, from an unexpected shock. Governments must prepare for, protect against, respond to and recover from crises through an integrated, centrally driven, all-hazards approach to risk management. There will be tough times ahead in this region in particular. But we can plan for them. This can be enabled by a central agency and a framework legislation for all-hazards risk management, resilience-building efforts. Partnerships and coalitions can make this work—but they will require creativity and lateral thinking.
Transforming government is one thing, but how can governments be sure that change will deliver real progress?
The GDP as a measurement is called into question because it assumes the purpose of government is economic growth. Efforts to create a wider definition of well-being provide additional insights on how society is performing. The U.K. and Australia created programs to measure well-being, the U.S. state of Vermont introduced the Genuine Progress Indicator, and Bhutan introduced the National Happiness Index. The UAE now has a minister of state for happiness.
Although there are many attempts to define societal progress, we are still missing a generally accepted, robust, universal framework, and a measurement approach that enables countries to scientifically measure it and guide their decisions, while allowing comparisons with other countries.
Setting aside measurement approaches, the world needs government: There are many emerging problems that need solutions, shocks that need to be mitigated, diseases that need to be eradicated, children that need to be educated, jobs that must be created and injustices that must be fought. The world requires not any government, but the very best form of government to bring about a better world.