Photo by Alvaro Pinot on Unsplash

NextGenGov: key insights as we re-imagine governance in the post-COVID era

COVID-19 has ushered in an era of large-scale government experiments. Through the NextGenGov Asia Summit and our ongoing engagements with governments, we’re learning about the new investment priorities for governments — including new policies, new ways of doing things, and new capabilities.

As governments transition from reacting to planning, attention is now turning to how to address the “long emergency” that is in front of us. For the NextGenGov Asia Virtual Summit, we brought together senators, ministers and senior government officials from across the region to paint a picture of the new normal of governance in the post-COVID era.

One learning is already clear: governments that recently experienced crises and invested in state capacity — whether health-related or natural disasters — were often those that most effectively mobilized to deal with the pandemic.

This is an example of what we think of as the “innovation dividend.” While an emergency might push governments into adopting reforms, changes in behaviour, or other innovations that are helpful today, those changes can have a deep and positive (or negative) impact on government and society for years to come.

As governments mount expansive recovery programmes, policymakers have an unprecedented opportunity to change how government works and how it mobilizes and enables collective responses to the structural weaknesses that have been laid bare by the crisis.

The discussions in the NextGenGov Asia summit highlighted 5 investment priorities that governments can make today to reap an innovation dividend in an era of long emergencies.

1. Building data infrastructure to reach the most vulnerable, including undocumented people and migrant workers

The importance of data in government has skyrocketed — from record keeping to an indispensable tool for service delivery. Gaps in data infrastructure have turned out to be costly for governments.

Far from being the great leveler, COVID has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable. COVID flipped many government services on their head; instead of waiting for people to come to government, governments reached out to people. This is where gaps in data quickly became conspicuous — and costly to deal with.

With millions of people outside of social protection systems, national ID systems became the backbone of many government responses to the crisis. However, many of these systems did not contain sufficiently granular information to target interventions. Governments also struggled to account for the “newly poor” who had never been part of social safety nets but suddenly found themselves falling below the poverty line.

National ID systems also fell short when it came to accounting for the region’s significant undocumented populations, including many rural, migrants or indigenous people. These groups were often the most vulnerable because they often lack access to healthcare, education, and other state services.

Data gaps meant that governments were less capable of targeting aid or had to mount large-scale door-to-door campaigns in the midst of the pandemic to understand who lived where or take on the impossible task of consolidating digital and paper records. In order to support an increasingly large group of people in crisis, social welfare policy needs to be made more universal in terms of addressing vulnerable groups and more targeted to focus limited funds on those who need them the most.

Data gaps with respect to migrant workers and their skills may also end up slowing economic recovery. Significant migrant and undocumented populations are a reality across the region. Many governments found themselves unable or ill prepared to manage them, with limited systems to track labour and their skills, and sometimes no way of reaching these groups. Sending skilled migrant labour back home without building up local capabilities will slow the recovery.

Key question: How can we ensure our ability to identify and reach the most vulnerable in society?

2. Retaining agile and distributed government capabilities beyond the immediate crisis

Governments became agile, large-scale experimenters in response to COVID. Across the region, traditional government systems suddenly became more open and agile. Over the course of weeks, governments launched unprecedented, large-scale digital cash transfer programs, and repurposed existing assets to deliver education to students’ homes. They rapidly adapted these experiments based on the results.

The crisis led governments to forge shoulder-to-shoulder working relationships with NGOs and private sector players who were previously kept at arm’s length. Policymakers talked about working side-by-side with civil society organizations, relying heavily on their trusted relationships within communities, as “a real transformation.” The crisis made the boundaries of government more porous, enabling a variety of new partnerships and working relationships. Increased demand for digital services, registries, and data analysis combined with short timelines led governments to work more closely with the private sector. Federal governments deputed staff to local levels to support local efforts. Policymakers who had seen the benefits hoped to retain these ways of working beyond the crisis.

Unless governance approaches are reimagined, the agile government we see today may quickly fade away. A great deal of government agility over the past months was enabled by emergency powers and a sense of urgency that will not be sustained. Planning and collaborations following the emergency will need to look very different. While many agree that governments cannot go back to a pre-COVID state, governments are likely to revert back to old ways unless governance approaches are reimagined to enable agility and openness on an everyday basis. While some governments have created “superministries” or committees to deal with horizontal governance challenges, these institutions may in fact be ramming older management models into new challenges rather than enabling genuine horizontal governance.

Key question: How can this moment be leveraged to create a more agile government outside of emergencies?

George Pagan on Unspalsh

3. Building feedback loops between central government and citizens that influence policy

Missing feedback loops between the poor and marginalized and central government have often dented trust in government.

Centralized policy responses to the crisis were required in most countries because of weak government capacity at the provincial and municipal levels and a concentration of fiscal powers at the central level, particularly as governments pursued extraordinary budgetary measures to mitigate the first order effects of the pandemic. These centrally-designed policy responses, even if delivered in collaboration with local government, often failed to take account of differing contexts and inequalities, and their credibility took a hit. On the other hand, governments that leaned heavily on government agencies that had rapport on the ground and took their feedback on board navigated the trust challenge effectively and saw their credibility rise.

Key question: How can we rethink central-local relationships and citizen participation so that policy interventions are adapted to different circumstances on the ground?

4. Pivoting to digital services — and making the pivot fair

We have seen the potential for a digital pivot and many sectors will need to work together to realize it. While digital services have become a must-have, they have not become more fair.

Nice-to-have digital services have suddenly become essential. While governments made rapid and bold transformations to enable digital cash transfers or online teaching, many who didn’t have the right devices or internet access were left behind. Though the pandemic has made the necessity of digital government services plain to all, a great deal of work remains to ensure that these services can be accessed by all. A rush to digitize runs the risk of “automating inequalities” by moving services that don’t effectively serve certain groups in society online and missing the opportunity to transform how those services are delivered.

Leveraging the potential of digital services requires not only infrastructure but ecosystems. Most countries were not ready to make the switch to digital when it came to their services. People lacking access to the internet and infrastructure are just one part of the challenge. Digital ecosystems are needed to make digital services work, whether it’s teachers that are comfortable with new methods of teaching, data scientists to analyze government data sets, or bank branches that cash out digital payments. The future is leapfrogging analog infrastructure and building ecosystems to enable digital infrastructure.

Key question: How do we make access to digital services — not just access to the internet — an equal-access public good?

5. Putting foresight and system thinking into everyday government

The failure to anticipate a pandemic wasn’t a blip. Throughout the crisis, policies often did not seem to anticipate likely responses.

COVID has forced a reckoning for the foresight community as a most unanticipated anticipated event. While foresight exercises regularly examined the risk of a pandemic, they rarely landed to impact realities in policy and on the ground.

The lack of anticipation and consideration for the system effects of policies appeared to continue as governments mounted their responses. For example, in many countries, farmers were forced to dump perishable commodities — a challenge that might have been prevented with the right policy interventions had it been anticipated. The result is that food security has been impacted in ways that will only become clear in the coming months. As farmers were not able to generate income, many found it difficult to replant for the following season. Food security will emerge as a greater challenge as winter approaches and may become even more critical with import-export restrictions.

COVID-19 has made it clear that anticipation needs to go beyond foresight exercises and that it plays a critical role not just at a strategic level but also the tactical level. It has also become patently clear that economic recovery, food security and social safety among others are difficult to deal with in isolation. If governments can succeed in putting anticipation and systemic thinking at the core of policy-making, they may be able to avoid some costly policy backtracks or unintended consequences.

Key question: How do we bring anticipation and systems thinking out of the ivory tower of foresight workshops and integrate it into everyday decision-making by government officials?

Keeping up with the needs of economic recovery and diversification is already a gargantuan task for policymakers. These investment priorities need not be taken as separate from investments into the recovery. The priorities shape how investments into the recovery can be done — whether it’s creating feedback loops with citizens through the deployment of digital government services, creating a system to continuously consolidate local and federal datasets as part of the next cash transfer scheme, or adopting a new and more agile managerial model as part of an economic diversification program — so that government can reap an innovation dividend far beyond this emergency.

COVID-19 has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change how government and society work to be better fit to systemic challenges of the near future.

Over the coming months, UNDP is bringing together its global expertise and a network of senior civil servants to support policymakers across the region looking to make bold and tangible changes in areas such as social welfare, economic recovery, public education, food systems — and ultimately how governance is done.

To learn more about the NextGenGov journey for policymakers, read Next Gen Gov Asia — Governing in an Age of Long Emergencies and learn from other policymakers working in the trenches in our Innovation Dividend Podcast Series. If you are interested in joining the journey as a senior policymaker, email alexandru.oprunenco@undp.org

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Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

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Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.