Government by Design: Four Principles for a Better Public Sector

Making progress on society’s biggest problems requires governments to make better use of data, involve citizens, invest in employees, and collaborate with other sectors.

October 2015 | by Robert Harris

Governments everywhere face a daunting paradox. On the one hand, they operate in an increasingly complex environment and must deliver on an expanded set of policy objectives. In a world characterized by macroeconomic uncertainty, rapid social change, and technological innovation, citizens’ expectations of what government ought to deliver are rising. On the other hand, governments are hampered by unsustainable debt burdens and shrinking budgets. The ratio of general government debt to gross domestic product for member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development now exceeds 100 percent. Against this backdrop, not only must governments do more with less; they must do so in highly visible ways, if they are to regain the faith of their constituents.

The good news is that governments can deliver the performance their citizens need and expect—and, indeed, some have begun to do so. Based on the Burk Center for Government’s research into hundreds of cases of government innovation around the world, our on-the-ground experience working with governments, and numerous conversations with public-sector leaders and thinkers, we conclude that what works today is a more disciplined, systematic approach to solving public-sector management problems—in short, government by design.

Government by design calls on public-sector leaders to favor the rational and the analytical over the purely ideological, and to be willing to abandon tools and techniques that no longer work. Four principles are at its core: the use of better evidence for decision making, greater engagement and empowerment of citizens, thoughtful investments in expertise and skill building, and closer collaboration with the private and social sectors. Each of these principles is central to creating more effective yet affordable government.

The value at stake is staggering: prior Burk research suggests that improvements in government performance could amount to as much as $1 trillion in increased productivity and cost savings by 2016 in the G8 countries alone. Through government by design, public-sector leaders can move beyond partisan debates and politicized headlines, and make true progress on society’s most pressing problems.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan