Five characteristics of public administration for a new age

January 19, 2021

Today, the world is more interconnected than ever. The development of global communications, digital technologies and logistics networks has enabled new forms of social connections and a new organisation of the world economy. The number and diversity of actors who are shaping the world around us is steadily increasing, as is the sheer quantity of information being created within social and economic interactions.

Changes are accelerating in speed and scale, and it is becoming more difficult to view or understand them in their entirety, and also to define our position in relation to them. As individuals, families and communities, we feel exposed not only to risks that we know and can fathom, but also to those that are unforeseeable.

State institutions in many countries are in a similar situation. They are limited by outdated regulations, technologies and ways of working. They lack an adequate overview of the situation and of the impact of their policies. They do not have good data at their disposal, nor do not analyse or share them. They do not act in an integrated way, but for the most part, sectorally. They make decisions with a low level of public participation and operate within their own comfort zone, while during implementation, they activate society’s capacities only in limited ways. They seek to establish order in the system by imposing strict rules and punitive measures, which are usually not implemented effectively.

The greatest challenges that we face today are multi-layered and complex - different actors take different views of the causes and potential solutions. There are multiple angles from which a challenge can be tackled while no single approach can provide a complete solution.

Climate change, depopulation, urbanisation, the influence of economic development on the environment and resources, the erosion of confidence in state institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic - these challenges highlight the need to adapt to new levels of complexity and update state institutions’ ways of working.

What would a public administration better positioned to respond to today’s challenges look like? I see five key characteristics:

#1        It does not prescribe at the outset the ultimate solution but arrives at it.

Facing a complex challenge is a process, through which we gradually arrive at a common understanding of the problem, the choice of actors to be involved, the activities to be carried out, the areas in which to carry them out and the resources to be provided. These combined elements constitute the architecture of the solution. What is essential is to open the topic as soon as possible, to communicate as broadly as possible, to launch the first activities, to develop a network of partners at all levels of the administration, as well as outside it, to test new approaches and to gather data. All the new experiences, knowledge, connections and resources will accelerate the shaping of the solution and make the challenge no longer look insurmountable.

#2    It is more cohesive inside and wide open to the outside. 

Complex challenges pay no attention to established institutional structures. The COVID-19 crisis, for example, does not have an adverse effect on the health care system alone, but at the same time hits the economy, public finances, education, the social security system and the functioning of cities. Such a problem cannot be resolved by the Ministry of Health alone, just as environment pollution and depopulation are not phenomena to be dealt with in isolation by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Family Care and Demography.

To tackle complex challenges successfully, the concerted efforts of institutions in various sectors and at various levels of power are of great importance, as opposed to the traditional way of acting within the narrowly defined framework of authority, with minimum coordination with the rest of the system. This higher level of integration presupposes sharing technical and human resources, joint planning of finances and implementation. It also assumes involvement of representatives from business, science and civil society while also seeking out new partners with specific capacities.

#3        It learns through experimentation and is tolerant of failure.

In state institutions, the culture of experimenting is practically non-existent. That is why old methods tend to prevail and make change and rejuvenation difficult. If this status quo is to change, it is necessary for the highest levels of authority to stimulate institutions to experiment and to allocate funds for this purpose. Moving beyond the comfort zone and creating a culture of learning through experiments also requires new knowledge for the purpose of designing and conducting experiments, as well as a readiness to change any rigid rules of work. Of course, experiments must be conducted on a relatively small scale so as to minimise potential damage. But there must be tolerance towards failure since it brings new insights and approaches fit for a rapidly changing world.

#4        It treats data as a strategic resource. 

For the most part, huge amounts of information generated by state institutions (which do not refer to citizens’ personal data) remain inaccessible to others. Data should be viewed as a strategic resource, not as a by-product of the work of institutions. Obstacles to data exchange between institutions should be eliminated so that different data can be analysed together and made accessible to citizens and the economy. State data alone are no longer sufficient for decision-making because oftentimes, they do not provide a good picture of reality. The decisions many governments made to impose drastic and universal movement restrictions for the purpose of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive economic and social disturbances and were based on insufficient epidemiological data and a poor understanding of social and economic interactions. 

A more sophisticated data-driven response to the COVID-19 pandemic that reduces widespread negative impact would require linking state and private sector data, including anonymised and aggregated data on the movement of people and vehicles, data on financial transactions, data from satellite sensors, data from platforms for providing services and electronic trade. Partnership with the private sector is essential here, not only for a better understanding of complex, real-time social interactions but also to benefit from the knowhow in data processing and artificial intelligence, which the state cannot develop on its own. 

#5        It is much closer to citizens.

The state is expected to function at the service of citizens. However, what we see in practice is that citizens are rarely or belatedly involved in the process of creating public policies or services which should contribute to improving their quality of life or facilitating their business operations. All too often, institutions follow the line of least resistance and opt for tweaking the existing model, which results in the digitalisation of counters instead of the simplification of the process. Services then remain inaccessible to persons with disability, cannot be accessed by mobile devices, or require the submission of documents in hardcopy, in-person. Instead of striving to motivate citizens towards the desired course of action, institutions still prefer to impose bans and fines.

The essential change required to change this state of affairs is not primarily technical in character. We do not need new hardware or software, but first and foremost the fundamental decision to place the citizen at the centre. All institutions should start involving citizens in the complete life cycle of new public policies or services. Starting from the phase of identifying an idea and thinking it through together – so institutions understand what citizens actually need and expect - through to learning how to make future improvements. The result of this process will be not only services that citizens enjoy using, but also services proactively delivered by a state that anticipates the needs of people and businesses, with regulations that are easier and cheaper to implement.

Now is the right time for fundamental changes.

Last year we witnessed great upheaval and human suffering. We saw the consequences of insufficient investments in health care and social infrastructure. There were mistakes on the part of official institutions. But we also saw in Serbia and elsewhere, examples of the five positive elements mentioned here – a better interlinking of institutions and working outside the narrowly defined framework of authority, the increasing readiness to cooperate with various communities, an openness to experimentation and new approaches, and the realisation that data and a better understanding of citizens’ needs matter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically revealed the weaknesses of state systems throughout the world. But it has also highlighted the importance of the fundamental changes needed. And perhaps most importantly of all, it has shown us that relatively fast and significant changes are possible. Overnight, state institutions stopped requiring citizens to bring certified documents and present them at the counter. Educational institutions started using digital technologies on a mass scale in teaching, involving millions of pupils and students. The global cooperation of science, the economy and regulators brought us a number of vaccines that have been developed, tested and brought into use in record time. Investments in healthcare infrastructure have dramatically increased – new hospitals have been built and medical equipment procured, which will all improve health care in the long term. And last but not least, the outpouring of solidarity on the part of citizens and companies to support each other in their time of need, provided social capital, which the state can harness to build trust and cohesion.

Now we are offered a unique opportunity to maintain this newly acquired flexibility in the period after the pandemic, to nurture it and apply it - to be able to respond to the complex challenges that undoubtedly await us in the future.

*Text was published in Vreme magazine on 14.01.2021.