This year's World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at the Swiss resort of Davos has - rightly – focused on our rapidly transforming world. The array of challenges we face today is a testament to systems, countries and peoples in flux. Middle East instability; the worst refugee crisis in living memory; geopolitical divisions and fluctuating global growth are just a few examples.
But listing them is one thing, solving them is quite another.
A results business
One thing that stays constant for policymakers the world is over, though, is the need for results. Citizens expect them. The media demands them. And governments hunt high and low for them. But it's not easy. Budgetary pressures continue to afflict many administrations; the public arena echoes to the sound of divergent voices and ideologies; and the pressure for daily decisions and urgent responses is unrelenting.
But if expectations are not met, legitimacy declines. Governments need to be able to demonstrate their impact and how citizens benefit – from education, health care to transport. But in many countries in the world there is frustration. Frustration that public services aren’t matching expectations. Frustration that taxpayers' money is being wasted.
This frustration builds. It generates cynicism with the political process and democracy more generally. No wonder that between 2007 and 2014, confidence in national governments declined from 45% to 40% on average according to the OECD, underlining what the Centre for Public Impact calls the “impact imperative”.
So, how can governments do better?
Thomas Jefferson once said that "with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” Check out the quote on the fourth panel of the Jefferson Memorial next time you're in Washington, DC – it couldn’t be more relevant today.
The World Economic Forum is calling these changing times the Fourth Industrial Revolution – recognition that an era of disruptive transformation beckons, one where the business models of each industry will be transformed and new technologies will enable almost anyone to invent new products quickly and cheaply. Nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, genetic technologies: we're on the cusp of being able to do things never before thought possible.
The good news is that governments are also drawing on the power of digital technology to build flexible services around the needs of users. Logging on to submit tax returns, for example, or renewing a driving license from a mobile device are now taken as standard in many countries. In addition, techniques such as behavioural insights are becoming more prevalent and new units known as "labs", made up of specialist teams dedicated to creating new and better solutions for citizens, are springing up in governments worldwide.
Stand and deliver
Our respective backgrounds and roles may suggest that we believe a delivery unit to be a catch-all solution. Actually, "delivery" requires far more. A science and an art, it should be woven deeply through the tapestry that is modern policymaking. There are several ways to do this.
Making time routinely to focus on delivering the governments priorities is important. Policymakers do not lack for distractions so carving out the time and space they need to focus on delivery is important. But bureaucracies and civil servants can also get into the habit of thinking the job is done if they follow due process and keep politicians happy. Keeping things ticking over and avoiding press criticism may give the appearance of delivery but won’t achieve much in the long run.
Instead, they need to aim high. Ambition is a crucial aspect of making change happen and a reliance on business as usual will not suffice. But while setting ambitious goals forces people things to do differently, incremental gains – really focusing on the details to grind out improvements – is equally important.
Thankfully there is now a vast amount of performance data to help them and this is where huge improvements can take flight. At the World Bank, for example, some priorities offer a quarterly or even more regular frequency of collection, which ensures frequent iteration and adaptation. The data is then published on an external website to boost transparency. The more data is shared the better as it enables more people to track, share and learn together – strengthening outcomes in the process.
Availability of data and performance metrics is only going to accelerate in the years to come – that's one thing we can be sure of. Another is that the changes that surround us today will continue to proliferate and accelerate. This can be unsettling – change often is. But policymakers should take solace in the knowledge that theirs is a role that offers unlimited opportunities to do good. To push boundaries. To improve the lives of citizens the world over.
This is an ongoing conversation. We would like to invite delivery leaders around the world to share their insights and experiences, successes and challenges. How do you focus on results? What challenges remain unresolved? What does the future of delivery look like?
The answers to such questions may be elusive but we look forward to identifying them and sharing this knowledge with government practitioners around the world. Delivering a brighter future remains within reach. It's time to get to work – at Davos and beyond.