Government Designed for New Times

Governments that are willing to reform and build these crucial capabilities are better able to achieve major breakthroughs in the most fundamental policy areas, even in the absence of new policy or legislation.

October 2015 | by Robert Harris

Rarely has the need for effective government been greater than now—and rarely has the ability to produce it been more constrained. After the recent wave of storms and disasters—both natural and financial—the need for leadership and a concerted response from national capitals is acute. Adding to the pressure, many governments are managing the implications of an unprecedented degree of fiscal and monetary intervention. They are preoccupied with the urgent tasks of getting banks to lend again and demonstrating fiscal credentials to the bond markets. The crisis mode of the past few years endures in several countries, while in others there is no more than cautious optimism.

Leaders must confront long-term, fundamental questions too: from the size and role of the state to how best to stimulate growth; from profound and surging demographic imbalances to tackling growing unemployment and welfare bills; from deciding on the extent and nature of regulation necessary to protect the public to forging a new relationship between citizens and government services. Thus, many governments confront a daunting paradox: an expanded set of policy imperatives in a constrained and almost precarious position.

On these subjects, however, there is little agreement. The policy debate is becoming more polarized at arguably the worst possible time. There is a real risk that in the face of big choices and much disagreement, paralysis reigns. Leaders thus spend their energy on policy fights and battles for the hearts and minds of the public—at the expense of making progress. It is in times like these that government matters most. 

Our research shows it is possible to make huge strides in addressing critical challenges, even without resolution of the many ideological and policy dilemmas. From government spending to tax collection, education improvement to health outcomes, and welfare reform to job creation, we see the potential for meaningful improvement, to do more and better with less. What is needed is government management by design, built to fit these difficult times: government that identifies the most critical, solvable problems, reorganizes where necessary to deliver the right solutions.

In this effort, governments can draw heavily on the mission-driven mind-set of employees—a real comparative advantage for the public sector over the private sector. Too often leaders insufficiently tap into this valuable asset. And leaders can do far more to mine information on what is working elsewhere. International peers, often trying to solve exactly the same problems, provide invaluable road maps and lessons. Unlike the private sector, where companies spend millions of dollars trying to understand secret competitor strategies and replicate them, the public sector is an open environment, and thereby easier to mine for successful practices and lessons learned.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan