4 ways leaders are driving innovation in the public sector and revolutionising governance

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Stefanie M. Falconi, WEF Fellow to Global Future Council, Co-founder of Instituto LimiteCo-Founder & Lisa Witter, Chief Executive Officer, Apolitical Foundation; Co-Founder and Member of the Board, Apolitical


  • While emerging technologies provide tools that enhance our capacity to monitor, track and prevent global threats, they are no substitute for good leadership and governance.
  • The Agile 50 honours public sector leaders who have pioneered novel approaches to governance to successfully navigate this digital transformation.
  • We will look to such leaders to ensure these changes are codified in policy and sustained over the long term once the world returns to some kind of normalcy.

The year 2020 forced an accelerated change in every sector in order to navigate the uncertainties of the pandemic. From autonomous delivery drones delivering COVID-19 samples to testing labs, to artificial intelligence predicting the risk of infections and aiding with contact tracing are just two examples of this accelerated change. Arguably, the public sector has been among the most affected; regulatory frameworks to deal with these changes were often absent a priori. Some programmes and responses were developed and tested as soon as they hit the ground. Many public sector leaders and their institutions turned crises into an opportunity to modernise public services and adapt to changing circumstances, exemplifying that tremendous transformation was possible.

Even before the disruptions of 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution threatened the relevance and effectiveness of existing regulations, which often lagged technological progress. While emerging technologies provide tools that enhance our capacity to monitor, track and prevent increasing global threats, they are no substitute for good leadership and governance. Employing powerful technological tools is an essential part of preparing institutions and governments for times of crisis. Nonetheless, we will look to leadership in the public sector to ensure these changes are codified in policy and sustained over the long term once the world returns to some kind of normality.

Introducing the Agile 50

Leaders this past year have been called on to respond to a global threat of multiple dimensions. Below we feature some examples from among 2020’s Agile 50 honorees – an award conceived by Apolitical and the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Agile Governance that honours public sector leaders, from high-profile icons to unsung heroes, who have pioneered novel approaches to governance to successfully navigate this transformation.

Their examples show what can be achieved when proactively reshaping public services for efficiency with a ruthless focus on citizens’ experience, using public, private and user collaboration and experimentation as tools to support continuous learning and adaptation – with exciting results.

1. Cultural shifts and an open mindset can happen overnight

Embracing flexibility and adaptation as opposed to the rigid bureaucracy often associated with government is indispensable. This includes making use of agile methods for transformation when developing regulation as well as improving processes in the public sector. Government must do this in collaboration with other stakeholders such as businesses, civil society, the third sector and academia.

Examples of leaders who are leaning into the latest technology trends to proactively shape them include Mikk Vainik, Head of Accelerate Estonia and Startup Policy expert at the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Estonia. This programme aims to leapfrog Estonia’s government into finding new solutions and setting regulatory changes in motion with expediency. For example, when the Hack the Crisis initiative was launched in March 2020, within 48 hours, 30 volunteer-based teams of more than 1,000 people had showcased their solutions to fellow fighters, public sector representatives and private ventures.

Another example is Hirohiko Nakahara, Deputy Director-General for Economic and Social Policy, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Japan, who designed a system to enable innovation across all of Japan’s ministries and agencies with a single point-of-contact at the Cabinet Office, a cross-ministerial body, that can expedite business engagement with government. His approach is always one that looks to promote ways to become more agile in policy-making through the experimentation of new technologies and services and review of regulation based on data collected.

2. New ways of involving citizens through consultation

This means designing multi-stakeholder efforts to solve global challenges and engaging citizens even when divergent interests stand in the way. Now, more than ever, citizens are demanding systems of public policy and governance that can respond to rapid changes. Increased pressure from an informed and active public to increase stakeholder engagement and improve open and transparent policy-making is imperative.

A leader who exemplified this drive to engage locally and nationally to find multi-stakeholder solutions is Aidan Eyakuze, who oversees Voices of the People – a survey launched and ongoing in three countries in East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. This has been a huge undertaking to aggregate and amplify citizens’ voices within government, and it was all done by mobile phone which has high penetration rates in the region. The findings helped turn a regressive tax into a progressive one, secure access to free healthcare for children, nursing mothers and the elderly, and improve official communications on COVID-19 safety measures.

3. Digitisation and lowering barriers to information and accessibility of public services

There is a need to digitise government services to enable their access online and to lower the access barrier so citizens can have information streamlined. It has often been the case that citizens had to call or visit several agencies to collect documents and information before gaining access to public services. Thinking in terms of user experience, rather than agencies, can make these public services more accessible.

A poll conducted in March-April 2020 by Apolitical, a global peer-to-peer learning platform for public servants, about what its members consistently said they most need during the pandemic showed that in terms of learning resources, support for digitising public services was second only to resources on how to work more effectively from home.

A survey conducted in March-April 2020 by Apolitical asks public servants to choose the most helpful learning resources during the pandemic. Image: Apolitical

Those leaders driving digitisation of services to enhance the user experience include Dan Hymowitz, who is leveraging data to clean up the city of Baltimore using a new performance management initiative – the first of its kind. His vision was that data could lessen unequal access to city services. CleanStat, one of the initiatives he oversees, is applying data analytics to clean up the city’s trash and property maintenance backlogs, aiming to make services more equitable and more efficient by slicing away at the backlog of 17,000 overdue service requests that had accumulated unevenly throughout the city.

Then there is the Minister of Economics at the United Arab Emirates, Abdulla bin Touq, who has led the digitisation of all public services. The Ministry of Economics was the first entity to move all 75 of its services online and close service centres in 2021 – part of a government reorganization to create digital channels that enable the public and business to obtain services with ease and convenience. For example, the Foreign Trade Department in the Ministry launched a dedicated platform to help businesses cope with the effects of the COVID-19 virus.

4. Embracing technology early and testing policy approach

The ability to test and implement policy in order to understand how to regulate in a proactive manner is crucial for modernising public services to adapt to the changed circumstances. This means mental and computational experiments that build capacity through stress-testing and, consequently, providing agile and adaptive tools for action even in the face of uncertainty.

Leaders harnessing data and technology to monitor and fine-tune performance include Paula Ester Leitão, Deputy Head of the Financial System Regulation Department at the Brazilian Central Bank of Brazil. This department helped spearhead Regulatory Sandboxes in the financial system in a series of actions to modernise the financial and payment systems. The call for proposals would be used as “laboratories” to test ideas in a highly regulated sector in order to provide flexibility for innovations to be monitored and evaluated. The Regulatory Sandbox process was launched in February 2021 and in its first cycle prioritised nine areas, with the aim of increasing competition and allowing new business models and products to enter the financial system, such as solutions for Open Banking.

Another leader in this field is Jon Simonson, Chairman of the Swedish Committee for Technological Innovation and Ethics (Komet), whose work is to accelerate policy development that employs new technologies. In developing governance and incentives, he points to three levels of government responsibility: 1) understanding new technologies and their implications, 2) daring to experiment to find what works, and 3) transformation through agility and collaboration. And he speaks of the crucial role of courage to reshape governance. Through such an approach, Komet is proposing the government launch an attempt to speed up the management of the permits and management rights needed to expand the Swedish electricity grid and create better conditions for increased electrification in the transport and industrial sectors.

Courage is the way forward

Poring over these trends and examples of leadership, we see the need for: efficiency and speed without compromising safety; resilience and the ability to adapt in the face of uncertainty; and creating or reinforcing existing social safety nets. This is not without its challenges, since most government agencies work with limited resources and time. And the pandemic, like other global risks, is riddled with uncertainty and complexity. Tech governance enables adaptive capacity in the public sector, but most reported that agile approaches to governance are critical – they are the equivalent of upgrading governmental operating systems based on data that improves officials’ knowledge and actions.

Leaders revolutionising tech governance show that innovation in the public sector is possible. Government agencies are ultimately made up of people and their ability to navigate change is reflected in these efforts. Institutional resilience requires sustained investment to develop more agile approaches and tools within government. It also takes cultural shifts in leadership. Under changing circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, courage to undertake radical transformation is the only way forward.

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