Rethinking government in a post-pandemic world
Interview with Alexandru Oprunenco, Head a.i. of the Regional Innovation Center, Bangkok Regional Hub UNDP
“Covid-19 has been an important and timely test for governance systems around the world, emphasising need for acceleration of new governance models,” says Alexandru Oprunenco, Head a.i. of the Bangkok Regional Hub, United Nations Development Programmes’ Regional Innovation Center. “The speed and complexity of changes have increased dramatically.”
In just the past year, governments have had to adapt quickly to face pressing challenges. Many have ramped up the use of tech, and restructured teams and processes. They’ve also rolled out new policies to deal with the immediate healthcare crisis and cushion the economic blows for businesses and vulnerable groups.
Oprunenco shares rising trends in government as they shift to lead in a post-pandemic world.
Ground up innovations
The complexity and weight of today’s problems mean solutions mustn’t only come from governments alone. “The traditional understanding is that citizens are beneficiaries, and the government is the provider,” says Oprunenco.
“The traditional understanding is that citizens are beneficiaries, and the government is the provider.”
But the pandemic has demonstrated the value of bottom up innovations and collective intelligence. In West Java, Indonesia, a volunteer group of data scientists and health experts built a data model to convince the government to go into lockdown.
Startups and manufacturing plants across Asia volunteered their tech for national counter-Covid efforts as well. As the demand for PPEs rose, companies used 3D printing to meet needs. “This was critically important, not only places like Vietnam that is still a relatively open place with maritime access, but even more so in places like Bhutan, or Nepal, which are much more secluded and much more difficult to access geographically,” Oprunenco says.
The role of government has evolved, he notes. No longer is it “seen as a top down bureaucratic machine from which everyone should be expecting solutions and that is ultimately responsible for all the solutions,” he explains.
Rather, governments have the power to enable bottom up crises responses at the private sector or startup level. “This is what we see increasingly happening, including in Asia,” says Oprunenco.
Towards future government?
Governments are coming to realise that the complex challenges will need coordinated efforts across governments and developmental organisations like the UNDP. There is an emerging practice of “shifting from a single-entry point solution approach to design something that responds to more systemic challenge,” Oprunenco says.
He points to the issue of plastic pollution. Traditionally, governments would look at how to invest in recycling startups, or waste segregation techniques.
But these don’t stop plastic waste from polluting the environment. Governments need to tackle not just symptoms but root causes, which in this case is an economic growth model built on quick consumption and disposal, he says.
“There should be alignment of different policies that will look at the regulations, investments, consumption patterns, and behaviors of the private sector and households,” Oprunenco explains. This method of tying in multiple moving parts to work towards a preferable future scenario is known as the portfolio approach.
Governments have started rethinking their structure to allow this. After all, wicked problems like climate change aren’t just the problem of the environment or energy ministries, Oprunenco says.
A big shift to the platform approach is coming in government, he believes. Instead of dividing work into separate ministries, it will be important for public agencies to work together as a whole to meet citizen needs.
This will require renewed emphasis on human-centered design and system thinking skills in the public sector, he says. As governments digitalise and become more connected, civil servants will have to think about bringing in not only IT talent, but also skills in ethnography research, for instance. Taking a more open approach to policy and service design will also be important.
Governments can even explore more flexible ways of recruiting manpower. The Canadian government brings people from other ministries or outside of the public sector to temporarily lend their expertise to specific projects, Oprunenco shares. This allows teams to tap a much wider talent pool.
Behavioural insights in policymaking
Behavioural insights can help governments design better, more targeted policies and is important addition to their toolkit, Oprunenco says. This approach considers citizen needs, how they make decisions, and their particular biases, “so that our policies are not citizen blind”, he explains.
It also allows policymakers to dig deeper into the factors that drive citizen behaviour, and the kinds of incentives they respond to. For instance, most finance agencies would use fear messaging to encourage tax evaders to pay up.
But in some countries, it might be more effective to appeal to social norms by saying that most of the companies of a similar size have already paid their taxes, Oprunenco shares. In patriotic countries, the message could be that paying taxes is a national duty. Governments could also emphasise how citizens’ taxes would go to the elderly and teachers, then include images of these possible beneficiaries.
Behavioural insights can be useful for guiding governments to redesign public services. The idea of a ‘one stop shop’ for citizen services is a good example. “When you need to go to several agencies for a process, it precludes you from doing something because it’s complicated,” he explains. When things are simpler, people are more prone to comply.
Governments rely on consolidated data to design policies, but they need to be increasingly careful about falling into the “curse of the average”, Oprunenco warns. “Covid-19 demonstrated again how many very precious details are hidden by the average numbers.”
Owning a smartphone, for example, may not necessarily mean having useful access to the internet. India is gathering numbers on “meaningful connectivity” to look at how many people have a usable internet connection.
This can be a helpful indication of the health of small local businesses. Lower income groups often depend on their smartphone to trade farm produce. “This kind of bottom level e-commerce is an important offsetting mechanism to maintain a certain level of income for poorer households,” he shares.
Governments are also looking into the new ways of collecting data. Statistical agencies typically conduct censuses and household surveys every ten to 12 years, but these cannot keep up with migration rates within the country, Oprunenco says.
“Beyond the usual statistical tools of data collection, you need to complement it with data that is collected in the field, with ethnographic research, interviews, and other types of qualitative data,” he notes.
For instance, aggregated numbers from hospitals and schools often don’t reflect the experiences of patients and students, he highlights. Reports may show a healthy number of teachers and doctors, but in reality, teachers may not be turning up for lessons and doctors may arrive late for appointments. “Governments realised they need to have small granular data to better understand impact,” he says.
Public services are increasingly being run on the back of citizen data. Governments need to manage this data delicately to ensure they don’t lose citizens’ trust. “It’s important that people don’t feel that they’re just being harvested for data,” notes Oprunenco.
“It’s important that people don’t feel that they’re just being harvested for data.”
There is a shift towards giving citizens more ownership of their data, he shares. Finland’s new national digital identity system will allow users to choose which aspects of their identity they want to reveal. Singapore is trialling a similar tool: citizens will see what personal data organisations are requesting and share only the required details.
As long-term challenges pile up for governments around the world, civil servants will need to rethink how they innovate, collect data, craft policies, and serve their people.
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