Globally, we face an unprecedented triad of crises: COVID-19 with its continued health, economic, and fiscal challenges; climate change with its potentially existential threat to the planet; and conflict, with its immense human suffering and destruction.
The world is at an inflection point.
We are presented with two stark visions for our collective future:
• The first builds on the progress that governments made early in the 21st century to create a future where people across the world are more secure in their livelihoods, prosperity is shared by many, poverty is in decline, our planet’s natural resources are used sustainably, and global warming is reversed.
• The alternative picture is a future that will involve increased uncertainty, inequality, poverty and suffering exacerbated by global health challenges, climate change, and conflict.
This century, prior to these crises, governments across the world made significant contributions to the progress of development. By and large, governments helped to control inflation, reduced extreme poverty, enabled a technological revolution in mobile telephony, and increased access to basic services.
Yet, governments in many parts of the world remain challenged to meet the basic needs of their citizens and face unresolved governance problems. They continued to struggle to improve the quality of services, create conditions for improved security of jobs and livelihoods of their citizens, and to build equity and social cohesion. Children are more often than not attending school, but often don’t learn the basics, accessing a government health clinic is often challenged by distance, opening hours and absenteeism, and healthcare providers often fail to diagnose and treat common illnesses. While social protection schemes have been rolled out around the globe, they are often insufficient to reach everyone, so peoples’ livelihoods are often precarious and without a safety net. High levels of corruption and organized crime remain unsolved issues in many countries. Governments are often mistrusted. Despite years of economic progress, in 2020, most people lived in one of the 76 countries where their government spent less than $3.44 per capita per day, whilst the richest countries spend more than $60 a day.
Most of these challenges are rooted in problems of governance. Service providers and regulators are not given the tools and resources they need to deliver and citizens are unable to hold service providers accountable. These problems pre-date the onset of COVID-19 and climate change, yet they remain intransigent problems to many nations, and continue to be challenges for governments. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to deliver climate change commitments, and the rise in conflicts has amplified the need for more effective government, from the central to the local level. Government agencies, including local authorities, state-owned enterprises, are taking on new responsibilities for policy making, regulation and service delivery; the pandemic in particular was a shock that required governments to respond with agility – moving services online, creating homebased work environments for civil servants and developing national and local policy in coordinated ways to minimize the health and loss of livelihoods impact. The pandemic caused a health shock that also required governments to step up their regulation of society to introduce and enforce physical distancing as one of the leading remedies to prevent transmission, leading to a culture shock in many places where civil liberties and private freedoms were considered to be secondary to the need for collective action for the greater good. The economic shock that ensued also required a rapid expansion of state assistance, both for citizens and, in many cases, enterprises. The pandemic has also generated a revenue shock, and has forced governments to spend, ramping up their debt. People around the world are feeling the impact of COVID-19, climate change, and conflicts, which adds further strain on the social contract
Call to Action
This is an urgent call to action. The time to reimagine government is now. With crisis comes opportunity; an opportunity for governments to change for good and tackle problems they have long neglected as well as those that are new.
History has shown us that governments can successfully meet the challenges they face, no matter how severe – and change for good. There are people in every country and in every government who can and do use the power, influence and authority they have, within and outside formal structures, to deliver changes in government. Opportunities abound from new technologies and disruptive innovations, to changing circumstances, leveraging teams and coalitions and harnessing authority for good. Change is possible, even in the most challenging contexts. Governments must and will reinvent themselves again to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Reimagining government involves governments governing differently. Regardless of the political system and distribution of power, the government failures of the past indicate that many of these failings are rooted in problems of governance. We suggest that governments identify behavior which has contributed to past persistent failures and confine it to the past; and consider changing behavior in ways which addresses those failures and enables them to confront new and critical challenges, to become the Government of the Future. Setting a tone of consultation that comes from the top can be important, with leadership that is focused on identifying meaningful goals that resonate with citizens and prioritizing what realistically can be achieved. A key feature in ensuring realistic, achievable goals, is to bear in mind fiscal realities, available capability and context.
Setting a different tone is key to building trust and raising resources for government to play its role. Regardless of the level or sector in focus, governments will need to set their own destinations and plot their own pathways. To pursue of change, a broad range of different coalitions and teams will need to be formed.
Individuals and institutions outside government might consider how they could change behavior so that they can support the change in approach. To do so they need to understand how they may have contributed to governments’ challenges in the past. There is clearly a role for international partners, including the World Bank, to play in this process to support and strengthen these more inclusive locally led processes. Through The Future of Government initiative the World Bank plans to enable this in three ways.
Governments can take the first steps by starting with a conversation. The entry points for taking action are multiple and varied. They will exist at the center of government, at local government, across sectors, or in a particular sector. It could involve convening a group of stakeholders in the education sector to tackle a learning crisis in schools. It could involve convening communities and local governments to discuss how livelihoods in rural and urban areas can be made secure. It could involve initiating conversations across rival communities. It could also involve a leader at the center of a national government, or a local government convening their executive to reset and agree a handful of priority issues for that government to tackle as a whole. Then, together reexamine the social contract, understand the situation at hand, identify the critical issues to focus on, plot pathways, agree the route and act. The initial conversation that leads to action need not take months, it can take place over a few days, and be revisited again and again. Whilst change can be rapid, the teams that drive change and the coalitions which support it need to be aware that change is more often incremental, takes time, and requires persistence and determination to deliver. Yet change is possible all the same.
The journey starts with individuals, whether inside or outside government. We ask you, the readers of this call to action, to reflect on where your government is, your role in the Government of the Past and your potential role in the Government of the Future, and how you can change behavior to support changing government for good. What part you can play in making this collective journey happen? With whom do you share interests? Whom can you influence? Can you start building a coalition for change? With whom could you have a conversation?
We ask you to have that conversation today and take the first step of the journey now.