Can Governments really balance agility, bureaucracy and their drive for a better good?
Most countries’ governments in the world have had to adapt their processes and regulations in order to act during the emergency phase of the COVID crisis. As many countries are seeing their curve flatten and/or trend downwards, governments are now shifting their efforts towards driving recovery as well as mitigation.
How can our governments leverage the painful past few weeks to best equip for the short and longer-term, in re-starting our economy and ‘normal’ life, avoiding the recurrence of another pandemic and/or best be prepared in case it would?
Pandemics are a forcing factor for change
Pandemics have been a catalyst for profound change throughout history: already in 541 AD, the Justinian Plague changed the course of the empire; in 1350 the Black Death caused England and France to call a truce to their war and in the more recent 1855, the Plague caused a change in policies in India, sparkling revolts against the British empire.
Government’s efforts to manage the current emergency has naturally also disrupted the normal ‘modus operandi’. We have seen digitalization decisions being taken and implemented – including changes to regulation – in days, often relating to projects which had been under discussion for months: from effective remote working of public servants to court hearings or parliamentary sessions being held online to the % of citizens leveraging e-services like social or unemployment benefits requests, to the subsequent capacity for governments to support the resulting huge spikes in demand.
The good, the not-so-good and the greater good:
The willingness for citizens to be served by their public sector agencies with the same experience as when dealing with their favourite online banking has been discussed at length as a characteristic element of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
What this pandemic has also shed a huge light upon is the importance for governments themselves to have appropriate agility to take decisions and act (supported by adequate regulation), appropriate tools (including digital ones) and appropriate means (including material resources, funds or people ability/capacity).
A balancing Act. The key is in balancing the desired agility which we have experienced repeatedly during the crisis (the good) with public sector bureaucracy which we can define as a specific form of organization characterizing public sector agencies in many countries (perceived as the not-so-good) and the ability to impactfully serve the greater good.
International organisations have been repeatedly raising the alarm on the increasing frequency of disasters both man-made and nature-induced; the IMF stated that the number of disasters has quadrupled since 2005, a new normal which this crisis is part of and which requires an adequate answer for the long term.
Agility to act: how do we deal with unnecessary bureaucracy?
Bureaucracy – which is often associated to the German sociologist Max Web whom at the end of 19th Century was claiming that bureaucracy was providing technical and proficiency advantages together with the ability to decrease caste systems and other forms of inequitable social influence – is nowadays often portrayed as sub-optimally responsive and competent as well as incapable to stay at pace with changes.
Reviewing regulations on core processes to enable more agility could help daunt the complexity which currently slows down governments’ progress in many countries: this should include the ability to adapt regulations swiftly to external changes, to take decisions in a timely fashion, to have flexible procurement tools as well as to enable involvement of ecosystems which can support competency in line with ongoing progress… all while maintaining transparency, fairness, constitutional values and the individual as well as the country’s best interest at heart.
The experience we have just been through is crucial in providing pragmatic learnings, vivid best practices to repeat and insights on how to deal with the ‘hard rocks’ such as balancing the privacy of individuals with the need to have the right information, in (near) real-time to save lives and diminish economic impact and recession.
A balancing Act. This is an incredibly complex balance to achieve which requires an adaptive loop model (not a big bang approach) as well as the ability to integrate additional skills (the ecosystem approach) and create agile focus/execution groups with the right skills (and who continuously measure the impact of what they deliver, fine-tune and adapt).
Making the right decisions with the right Data
Making optimized decisions which serve individuals and the country is heavily dependent upon the data governments have: At the beginning of the crisis, governments had to make decisions with partial information (think about Italy’s decision to lockdown as a result of the growing virus spread – as the first country in Europe -) under huge time pressure, enormous citizen anxiety and no allowed margin for failure.
The importance of data for governments has been a centre topic of many conferences for decades around data interoperability, to open data to secure data exchange and more.
Today’s technology tools can provide great ability to analyse and visualize data, draw intelligent insights, simulate cases, provide predictive scenarios and preventive measures; it is now also easier to add external data sets to governments’ existing information as well as anonymized data in order to respect privacy rules and optimize outputs.
A balancing act.
The world produces quintillions bytes a day and 90% of all data has been produced in just the last few years. Governments are increasingly becoming savvy but this currently still is a complex, unresolved issue compounded by heterogeneous, siloed government structure and systems. Organizing that data, processing it and giving it a context will provide the information that governments need in critical decision making. Incremental projects (in addition to and/or instead of a big bang approach) as well as leveraging relevant data science skills will facilitate and accelerate progress.
Security, security, security and privacy
We have all read in the press the increased cyber-attacks which occurred during the pandemic, growing disinformation creating additional complexity to an already difficult situation as well as many concerns about the attack to individual privacy and human rights related to contact tracing projects.
Fighting off cyber attacks necessitates a collective effort between governments. In terms of privacy, as mentioned by a recent WEF article, this crisis will eventually pass and, as new data challenges arise, privacy technologies must become the standard for enterprises and governments alike, to ensure we are best equipped to facilitate wide-scale privacy-enabled data collaboration before the next crisis unfolds.
Another balancing act. As countries’ grew more and more dependent on digital systems to continue their operations, the single most important factor – perhaps above all others –quickly became ensuring robust security, while maintaining the privacy and digital trust that can safeguard the ongoing implementation of innovative projects.
Unless both security and privacy technology, skills and ecosystems are firmly in place – there will never be enough transparency or trust to enable the adoption and agility required m moving forward.
A window of opportunity is now open:
The painful experience which we are going through around the world can facilitate a positive, disruptive jump forward for our governments to benefit individuals and societies. Governments have reminded everybody of their relevance over the past few weeks; they are key actors but they cannot do it alone: during the pandemic, individuals, companies and organisations have all come together in beautiful ways to support and facilitate governments actions for a common good. This valuable civic engagement is an invaluable contribution to our present and our future alike.
This article originally appeared on the author’s LinkedIn page.