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Future of Government: The Social Contract

Social contract, future of government

The process of reimagining government starts with the social contract between the government and citizens. Governments face changing and growing demands and expectations from their citizens. There is an opportunity to reexamine what governments do for their citizens and what citizens do for their governments.

For a renewed social contract to be sustainable and effective, it needs to be supported by an elite bargain. Power, authority, and resources that enable governments to function are typically concentrated in elites, not the broader citizenry. Therefore, the deals reached by elites are critical for governments to deliver on the social contract. For elite bargains to be developmental, it is critical that elites commit to outcomes that benefit the broader society and not just themselves.

There are four key questions that governments can ask themselves: What is the role of government? How can government deliver? How can government be more productive? How can government build trust?

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to deliver climate change commitments, and the rise in conflicts have amplified the need for a more effective government from the central to the local level. Government agencies, including local authorities, and 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 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.

The four tabs below set out how governments have answered these questions in the past, how Governments of the Future might go about doing so in consultation with their citizens, and the choices and conundrums they may face.

  • Role of government

    The original concept of the role of government has been that of guarantor of public safety and provider of order. A government must monopolize the legitimate use of force and set and enforce the laws that govern society, allowing it to raise resources, regulate markets and keep a degree of social cohesion. Governments were also established to improve societies’ welfare by addressing market failures and the externalities that cause them through regulation. The dominant way in which governments intervene and spend public resources is to provide citizens with goods and services, thereby, along with providing security, establishing government legitimacy.

    Governments can coordinate, cajole, regulate, inform, and coerce, as well as strictly provide. As governments generally require assistance from citizens and non-state actors to create needed change, they use these tools to stimulate the private sector and community action.

    Role of government

    Conundrums and Choices



    Future of government

    How will the role of government change after the pandemic?

    The blog discusses the disruptive debate on the future role of the government hosted by the World Bank on June 2nd 2021. Former government officials, social activist and academics joined together to debate the future role of government and how it would change in a post-Covid world.

    Future of Government initiative

    Re-booting public procurement to revitalize the 'social contract' of governance

    The Blog discusses how procurement can help contribute to a broken social contract in Africa by increasing transparency, improve public service delivery and lead to an overall better rate of satisfaction of citizens with the public sector.

    Role of government

    The future of government: a new social contract for the 21st Century?

    This Blog authored by Kumi Naidoo discusses the broken trust between citizens and the state and how trust-rebuilding measures are needed not just words to address the pressing concerns of our time such as climate change or the growing inequality.

  • Delivery, Future of Government

    This century, governments have expanded what they deliver and what they regulate, but this expansion – and often a lack of genuine intent – has challenged their ability to deliver quality services. Recent crises have driven innovation and put a spotlight on governments’ varying abilities and approaches to delivery. Governments have been forced to improvise in the face of unexpected demands.

    Government delivery

    The Government of the Future will continually drive to improve delivery through existing and new government roles, keeping a clear focus on its customers. Consultation with the citizen, communities and firms keeps a governments’ focus on their needs, rather the government acting as though it knows best. This culture is instilled at every level of government.

    The Government of the Future identifies delivery challenges and prioritizes them based on their impact and complexity to address. It investigates the underlying causes of these challenges and works toward collective solutions, both across and within sectors.

    Conundrums and Choices



    Delivery, Future of Government

    How officials can do better at delivering services to citizens

    The third Disruptive Debate in the Future of Government series featured four participants from East, South, and West Africa, who discussed the challenges of service delivery. The conversation focused on how governments get things done. While many governments can successfully set policies or strategies, far fewer can implement those plans successfully.


    Role of government

    Working with local governments to improve service delivery in Indonesia

    Presenting an example how the World Bank can help local governments contribute to better service delivery for citizens in Indonesia. MELAYANI supported local governments in selecting the problems they felt were most important, helping to ensure that they were locally salient.

    Role of government

    Three imperatives to keep food moving in a time of fear and confusion

    Access to food is a fundamental human right but with the start of the pandemic governments around the world have grappled with the consequences of shortages and supply chain disruptions. This Blog discusses ways in which authorities can help ensure that crucial food supplies are maintained and that people have the resources to acquire needed food.

  • Priductivity, Future of Government

    Governments are universally facing constraints to their resources amid growing demands and are constantly trying to achieve more within those constraints. To be successful, they must address persistent inefficiencies in the use of public and private resources, in the workforce, in procurement, and in the deployment and use of public finances. In addition, they must take on the corruption that is prevalent in all governments and societies.

    Priductivity, Future of Government

    The Government of the Future identifies areas where there are inefficiencies, and it prioritizes the savings on the basis of the degree to which they affect delivery and the savings addressing them could generate.

    It makes effort to understand why inefficiencies exist - including the technical, political and institutional reasons. It identifies the stakeholders involved, their motivation, their power, and the resources they influence.

    Based on these understandings, it develops and implements practical solutions that address the causes of inefficiency and deliver sustainable improvements in value for money and delivery.

    Conundrums and Choices


  • Trust, Future of Government

    Trust is the fabric that holds society together and allows governments to operate. It guides the development of rules and laws that are generally accepted and understood by most of society. In recent decades, trust in well-established public institutions and governments has been declining, as some citizens feel governments don’t have their ‘best interests at heart’ and are more dominated by elite interests.

     A variety of factors, including history and culture, determine what alternative institutions people choose to trust when their belief in government is shaken. There are several competing networks of trust living within the same country. Trust within government and between government agencies, locations and levels is often strained, yet overcoming distrust is critical for efficient and effective government operations. 

    Trust, Future of Government

    The Government of the Future understands that the trust of citizens and trust within the government is critical for its ability to achieve its objectives. It assesses and understands where it is trusted and where it is not trusted - and what impact this has had in the past, and how it may impact on the future achievement of its objectives.

    Importantly, it understands the sources of mistrust, who citizens trust, and why.

    Crucially, the Government of the Future understands that to earn trust, it must be consistent and fair. It must strive for consistency and equity in the application of regulation and delivery of services and be seen to provide value for money. It is humble, is clear about what it can and cannot achieve, and takes responsibility for failures as well as successes. It prepares for crises, as the quality of their response can have an outsized effect on public trust. Ultimately, to earn trust, it must deliver.

    Conundrums and Choices



    Role of government

    Trust— necessary fuel for effective governance

    Trust in political leadership has been especially strained during COVID-19 as not all politicians and leaders have adhered to government mandates and policies regarding, for example, lockdowns, vaccines and masking, creating distrust, discord and concerns about just and fair treatment.

    Role of government

    The future of government: a new social contract for the 21st Century?

    What happens when people stop trusting their leaders? They become suspicious. As we’ve witnessed, many people do not trust state-led vaccine programs. Then, people start taking matters into their own hands to affect change. 

Disruptive Debates


First Debate

Watch the debate on demands and future objectives of governments.

Lara Saade
Communications Lead, Governance Global Practice, World Bank 1818 H St. NW, Washington DC 20433 Email