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Governments have to find new ways to work with a more diverse array of people and organizations. Collaboration, co-creation, and co-production will all become more common features of government operations and the delivery of public services.
The Open Government Partnership, launched in 2011, has convened public sector reformers and civil society leaders in a bid to try to make government more inclusive and accountable. The partnership now includes nearly 80 countries and 20 sub-national governments. Meanwhile the US, Australia, and Singapore have all experimented relatively recently with more consultative and deliberative policy-making, including through citizen juries (representative groups of people from a community who are tasked with assessing particular issues affecting that community) and deliberative polling (asking people to deliberate on potential policy moves), in order to feed a wider range of perspectives into policy decisions and implementation.
However, a great amount of care must be exercised when picking and choosing where to collaborate - and there is already an extensive track record to examine when evaluating potentially promising projects; nearly 2,000 public-private partnerships worth about €336 million were developed in the European Union between 1990 and 2016, according a 2018 European Court of Auditors report.
Multi-stakeholder approaches will only become increasingly necessary, and so leaders in every sector will need to learn how to operate more effectively across complex networks - and build greater amounts of trust with one another in the process, not least because the daunting challenges now facing humanity, whether it is the climate crisis or the encroachment of technology on our civic space, cannot be solved by any single sector alone.
Unfortunately, the expected benefits of many of these infrastructure-related partnerships in the EU often failed to materialize. Nonetheless, their shortcomings merit scrutiny in order to avoid related future missteps. In the case of truly cutting-edge technologies where expertise is particularly thin, non-governmental actors may be particularly important partners who can help anticipate potential risks and opportunities.
Quite simply, governance must become a multi-stakeholder endeavor. For example, as governments and policy-makers increasingly scramble to react and respond to technological innovation, it creates opportunities for the private sector, community groups, the media, and academia to all work alongside public officials and provide expertise on the applications and potential consequences of innovation.
Governing for the Environment
According to the United Nations, despite a decline in pollution due to pandemic-related lockdowns in 2020 carbon emissions are expected to rebound to historic levels. Measures implemented to fight the pandemic can also help mitigate the impacts of climate change. The climate crisis is worsening, as many governments fail to take the necessary steps to reduce emissions. More must be done to structurally alter this disastrous path, and greater multilateral commitments are needed.
An “all of the above” approach may be necessary, according to the Director of the European Institute at Columbia University - in addition to global initiatives, regional collective action will likely be vital for hitting targets established by the Paris Agreement on climate change. While climate change does not respect national boundaries, it does have disproportionate effects on particular regions. These areas must cooperate more effectively to ensure they are better protected, and must take collective action on issues like elevated flood danger, water scarcity, desertification, and deforestation.
Most efforts to combat climate change have been market-based, such as emissions trading systems and direct carbon taxes. However, the “yellow vest” protests in France, initially triggered by fuel taxes designed to help curb emissions, demonstrated the potential difficulty in making individuals bear the cost of climate change mitigation.
As they focus on companies in this regard, governments should make pandemic-related bailouts conditional on meeting emissions targets, and on efforts to implement a “just transition” for those workers displaced in a greener economy.
COVID-19 also presents an opportunity to reduce mobility-related emissions, and revamp public transportation systems. In many places, a transformation was already taking place prior to the pandemic, as more commuters shifted away from cars and elected to take public transportation, walk, or cycle.
Now, the pandemic has made crowded trains and busses less appealing - and in response some cities, such as Paris and Berlin, have added bicycle lanes. These are an important element of plans in many urban centers to reduce the time needed to navigate them on a daily basis. Local governments must continue to implement such healthy adaptations, in order to make cities more livable and sustainable.
Future-proofing and building infrastructure resilience will be crucial when it comes to railways, maritime industries, airlines, and roads. In addition to expediting domestic projects, national infrastructure agencies must redouble efforts to cooperate with their counterparts abroad, in order to ensure effective coordination.
The Importance of Values in Governing
When human-centre values are applied to policies, those policies can more effectively safeguard against the unravelling of social cohesion and contribute to establishing peace at a national and international level. Core values like human rights and respect for the rule of law can no longer be taken for granted. All over the world, these values can no longer be taken for granted (if they ever could) - especially in relatively autocratic countries or among populations particularly susceptible to populist rhetoric.
There are many areas where values can explicitly inform policy preferences, from attempting to apply fair treatment to people of every age group, to broader social and economic plans, and to efforts to better protect the environment. Values will also play an essential role as technology generates ever-larger volumes of potentially accessible personal data, not least by shaping the privacy regimes that determine how that data can be exploited.
Policies underpinned by humanistic values will be critical as governments face these kinds of potentially daunting issues, all of which require more than simple templates. However, in most countries people are generally developing a more diverse variety of basic dispositions, religious beliefs, lifestyles, and quality-of-life expectations. That in turn means that the meanings of even basic values such as liberty, justice, human rights, the rule of law, and human dignity are being contested.
Agile governance means that policy-makers remain acutely aware of the diversity of values, their likely divergence, and their commonalities. This requires more than just active monitoring of value systems and potential value clashes (of the sort that can devolve into culture wars), but also active outreach to a wide array of stakeholders who are made to feel involved - even, and maybe especially, those with smaller platforms and greater challenges.
Truly robust and rigorous forums for public debate about values could help build up a collective capacity to assess the ethics of emerging issues of all types. In this sense, agile governance necessitates a kind of stewardship that enables inclusive and human-centered policy-making, and successive iteration until the needs of the governed are met to the greatest extent possible at any given time. In the long-term, more effective civic education is needed, targeted at young people and adults.
Agile Governance - What issues are we faced with?
Governing Communication Chaos
Managing Technology’s Impact
Massive changes in how we communicate and consume news have created a dire need for internet governance reform. The internet will never provide completely accurate information, so people need help sorting fact from fiction.
Many institutions now tasked with regulating internet use belong to a previous era of communication. With tools such as social media constantly evolving, and new technologies ready to emerge, governments must ensure that their institutions are flexible and adaptive enough to react appropriately - and with the volume, velocity, and variety of data expanding exponentially, action is urgently needed now to bolster the ability of regulators to explore ethical ramifications and act in a timely manner.
Online platforms are willing to govern content to some degree, there will never be a completely accurate news environment online - so people need help sorting fact from fiction. Some key issues that merit particular attention are potential bias embedded in data, privacy infringement, and lack of transparency. Political polarization must be addressed online; the most resilient societies will be those best able to defend against fake news and echo chambers. However, social media services continue to reward emotionally-charged, questionable content. As one social media editor explained to a news outlet, “people usually don't share boring news with boring facts.”
By increasing public awareness and improving media literacy, internet users can be made less susceptible to conspiracy theories and misinformation. In addition, by nudging users towards a more diverse array of media sources and opinions, polarization may lessen. The tech companies themselves can do more to ensure that the information on their platforms is accurate. Checking every post may not be feasible, but some efforts to take down harmful stories - such as QAnon-related content - are a step in the right direction.
Still, the future is sure to be disorderly and full of potential pitfalls. This means that new, smarter regulatory models are needed. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s director of Science, Technology, and Innovation has said, “there’s always going to be a gap between where the policy world is and where the technology world is.
The question is how do you narrow it?” This is now the task for governments: to successfully implement technological solutions and regulatory models, without hindering innovation. As they proceed, it will be important to not focus too heavily on technical solutions - the most critical need will often be to integrate more people into the decision-making process.
Governments must help people deal with technological change, as they compete with tech giants for influence. Technology does not exist in isolation; it impacts the ways we relate to one another, the health of economies, and the stability of governments.
One of the most significant tech-related challenges is the effect of artificial intelligence on labor markets - a study published by the Brookings Institution in 2019 estimated that roughly one in four jobs in the US was “highly vulnerable” to automation. COVID-19 is likely to accelerate this trend, as workplaces look for ways to get more done with less human contact (and often with fewer humans). Tech-related economic disruptions have potential social impacts. Some may be positive - AI can help detect financial fraud, for example, diagnose diseases, or improve agricultural productivity.
But technological change can also leave most vulnerable people behind. Governments face a difficult task in deciding how best to harvest the potential of new technologies without aggravating social dislocation and exclusion. They must embrace efficiency gains that result from technology, but do so with smart and adaptive regulation. The “precautionary principle” should be used in all cases: do not wait until harmful effects are proven, before enacting regulation to shield society from potential downsides.
Technology has become an important component of international relations, for example; the US-China trade conflict results in part from efforts to control access to the most cutting-edge innovation. Governments have a major role to play in keeping the public aware of the technological changes likely to affect them most. The market valuations and reach of the largest US tech firms including Apple, Facebook, and Tesla have soared, lending them serious clout and helping them rival governments in terms of global influence. Apple, for example, surpassed the entire German DAX index in terms of value, while Tesla, which produces less than half a million cars per year (compared to Toyota’s 10 million) became the world’s most valuable automaker in mid-2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only boosted the big tech firms’ size and sway, prompting questions about whether they will adopt commensurate corporate responsibility practices. The evidence so far is mixed. Some efforts, such as Microsoft contributing to affordable housing in the Seattle area, have drawn praise. But some critics argue that these efforts pale in comparison to the companies’ revenue, and may be little more than window dressing.
Making Multilateralism More Effective
Multilateral systems can be strengthened, so that when the world needs it most countries will have incentives to work collaboratively, in order to effectively analyze and confront such challenges as they arise.
National policies could better integrate multilateral considerations as they are developed, potentially enabling leaders to balance domestic political demands with the benefits of global coordination. Global cooperation can be strengthened in order to better deal with crises like COVID-19. Multilateral institutions are in crisis, and “smart sovereignty” is needed now to help balance international cooperation with national autonomy.
Any global public good, be it environmental protection or education, will be undersupplied if left purely to market mechanisms. However, effective multilateralism and global governance can help address deficiencies. Inge Kaul, an adjunct professor at the Hertie School in Berlin, has suggested that an entirely new approach, dubbed “multilateralism 2.0,” is needed now to deal with global challenges.
Many of these challenges are well-understood - like climate change, pandemics, and financial market instability - yet surprisingly little is being done to address them. Due to their potential severity, we must find a way to make related policies “multilateralism-compatible.” And, in order to avoid a leadership vacuum, a multilateral system featuring equal negotiating positions and effective dialogue is needed.
Only through mechanisms like this can fears about losing sovereignty be assuaged, and multilateral cooperation be made more likely.
However, international institutions must avoid overreach. Most have a tendency to add to their portfolio of responsibilities over time - resulting in fewer core resources and greater project-specific resource allocations. Multilateral institutions must draw clear lines under the limits of their responsibilities or they risk mission creep and a dilution of purpose.
Agile governance for these organizations means staying focused, and ensuring they have resources commensurate to their tasks. In some cases, they will have to undergo a serious strategic management exercise and review their mission, governance structure, and range of activities. COVID-19 has increased debt levels and exposed weaknesses at the heart of the global financial system, and more must be done to shore up the system in anticipation of crises. Some experts suggest that targeted re-nationalization of production may be needed to respond to COVID-19; more broadly, however, the crisis has made it clear that multilateral coordination will be necessary to effectively combat its health and economic consequences.
Experts should be placed prominently at the centre of efforts to deal with crises. The 2008 financial crisis, the 2015 migration crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic all exposed deficiencies in the ways that governments handle uncertainty. Only a multi-faceted, inclusive, and analytical governance approach can ensure that we will be relatively well protected.
Despite warnings in some quarters and - in the case of the pandemic - actual plans and structures having been put in place in some countries, most states and international institutions were underprepared when these crises hit. In order to enable better-prepared, responsive, and agile responses, the prominence and importance of experts must be better-emphasized, and civil society must be more thoroughly engaged.
Civic institutions, which generally operate in closer proximity to local populations than heads of state or leaders of governments, and often boast greater local knowledge as a result, can contribute vital information. A wide range of experts must be called upon during crises, including those who operate outside of typical government institutions.
With uncertainty on the rise, the usual channels and sources of knowledge will no longer be sufficient. By incorporating more diverse and comprehensive information, international institutions, national governments, and local leaders alike should be able to increase their analytical capacity and their ability to deliver effective and rapid responses.
When dealing with migration, institutions must carefully consider the “push factors” that trigger large-scale refugee flows, by closely monitoring conflict zones and failed states. In terms of climate change, while the problem is generally well-understood, too little is being done - in addition to addressing the source of the crisis (excessive and unchecked greenhouse gas emissions), governments must become better able to predict and mitigate the many near-term climate-related disasters that have become increasingly common.
Meanwhile financial crises call for ensuring as much equilibrium as possible, and realizing that just because we may be experiencing a period of relative calm the necessary safeguards still should be firmly in place - and even strengthened. And when it comes to pandemics, preparedness is key. The exact nature of any new outbreak is always going to be difficult to ascertain, but the world must be able to collectively respond more quickly and comprehensively than it did with COVID-19. A diverse range of new challenges will no doubt affect us all in the coming decades.
“Agile” governance means more than just coordinating effective, efficient, and reliable public and private institutions to effectively manage problems - the term implies a forward-looking approach that seeks to anticipate problems before they materialize. Its application is perhaps needed most in fast-changing, impactful areas like technology, health, sustainability, and economic development.
Demands for agile governance have never been greater, amid a lingering pandemic, conflict, an ongoing crisis of multilateralism, and the persistent weakness of many national governance systems.