Governments need to learn, adapt and respond in new ways - this is how capacity development can help

Man doing wood work, the public sector needs to invest in capacity development

Capacity development is a priority for governments in both the developed and developing world. Image: Unsplash/Jeriden Villegas

Busani Ngcaweni
Principal, National School of Government, Republic of South Africa
Chido Munyati
Head of Regional Agenda, Africa, World Economic Forum
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  • Capacity development is not simply a matter of transferring knowledge.
  • It is a process whereby people, organisations and society as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain capacity over time.
  • Capacity development is a priority for governments in both the developed and developing world.

In 2006, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defined capacity development as “the process whereby people, organisations and society as a whole unleash, strengthen, create, adapt and maintain capacity over time”, capacity being the ability to manage affairs successfully.

This same paper recognised that capacity development is not simply a matter of transferring knowledge; rather, those seeking capacity development need to own the process, be invested in it and navigate it according to their specific needs and context.

To date, capacity development remains a priority for governments, in both the developed and developing world. Governments face multiple, complex, and interdependent challenges requiring them to continuously adapt, learn and respond in new ways. Capacity development is, therefore, an ongoing process, rather than an end goal, for agile governments.

A systems-thinking approach

Public administration and public sector institutions are at the forefront of governments’ responses to a myriad of challenges. The safety and wellbeing of societies depend on capable public administrations that are proactive, innovative and diligently manage public affairs.

The standard division of public sector work into thematic departments and technical domains can hinder effective responses to emerging policy challenges that span the entire public policy realm. The interconnected nature of the opportunities and challenges facing governments today reinforces the need for them to be tackled within their individual contexts.

A systems-thinking approach to policymaking is fundamental to support effective governance. The COVID-19 pandemic made this clear as issues as varied as education, digitization, international travel, and even diplomatic affairs became entangled in what is, essentially, a public health crisis.

Workers in the public sector need to access, filter and understand knowledge, expertise, data and best practice. This allows for a positive feedback loop that will inform policy- and decision-making, directing resources, anticipating trends, and managing risks, among other things.

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Private-public partnerships

If governments don't adapt they risk losing their legitimacy and being rendered irrelevant. This is the basis for the partnership between the National School of Government of South Africa and the World Economic Forum. The partnership is designed to provide South African civil servants with premium access to the Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform.

The goal is to support public sector initiatives by providing easy access to a continuously updating digital repository of expert knowledge and insight. The Strategic Intelligence platform hosts a broad selection of publications, rich media and data. Its repository is designed to inform policy development, decision-making, briefings, research and other needs of government departments.

The platform helps users respond to accelerating complexity by enabling them to understand global issues in their full context. It can assist in eliminating blind spots, overcoming institutional biases, broadening perspectives, and gleaning insights.

A transformation map of South Africa.
A transformation map of South Africa. Image: Strategic Intelligence

It combines human intelligence sourced from the Forum’s expert network with machine intelligence to build dynamic visual frameworks – anchored by top-of-the-range transformation maps. These maps efficiently illustrate the many (and often overlooked) interconnections among topics, tracing developments in one area that can impact others.

They are augmented by up-to-date feeds of research, analysis, video, and data that enable users to monitor trends, alongside tools for custom-creating maps, accessing experts, and attending selected Forum events. Strategic Intelligence is never prescriptive, it allows users to adapt it to their needs, priorities, and challenges.

Solutions for sustainable development

The Government of South Africa has in place a number of priorities, including economic growth, job creation, poverty alleviation, improving education, and rural development, among others, all of which tie in with the National Development Plan. To achieve these objectives, the South African government's number one priority is building a capable, ethical and developmental state.

This prioritization is in line with the African Union and United Nations’ recognition that capable public institutions are necessary for sustainable development and achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The interconnectivity of challenges is clear, for example; education is required for meaningful employment, which is necessary to combat poverty.

The solutions are therefore interconnected as well. The Strategic Intelligence platform will support the Government of South Africa to identify potential solutions that promote comprehensive policy responses.

This partnership between the National School of Government and the Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform provides an opportunity to address complex issues. It is a pilot project with a long-term goal to provide trusted content and expert insight to the public sector in developing countries at scale. This is in alignment with the shared goal of South Africa, the African Union and the United Nations to build capable, effective and strong public institutions at all levels.

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