How will the role of government change after the pandemic?


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Future of Government Second Disruptive Debate
Future of Government Second Disruptive Debate

On June 2nd, the second Disruptive Debate in the Future of Government series brought together five thinkers from around the world to share their views on: What roles should the government take on, given the increased demands from citizens?

Tim Besley from the London School of Economics and Political Science opened the debate stating: a key role of government is to make decisions competently. Governments’ roles depends on their three capabilities: to raise resources, regulate markets, and provide collective goods. Raising funds in a crisis is a big challenge; many critics think that putting more resources in the hands of governments is not the only answer. In countries with trusted governments, more government makes sense; in others, other actors may take on – or complement – some roles. The main concern is how to transition from crisis to recovery mode. Governments, addressing both the crisis and recovery efforts, must essentially ask what success looks like, and manage backwards from there. In doing so, the governments should move beyond the aggregate outcome measures to reveal the inequalities hidden behind the means and medians.

Former Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Human Rights in Pakistan Rabiya Javeri Agha explained that bureaucrats’ ability to respond in crisis depends on the government structures. Authorities, entrenched in colonial legacies, tend to be slow to react. Additionally, federal countries face challenges as seamless collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries, critical during a crisis. Despite these salient challenges, the pandemic nudged the Pakistan government to be more data-driven and agile, and to develop a real commitment towards specific goals, making rigid reporting lines and hierarchies obsolete. The acute crisis phase led to a willingness to do things differently and to communicate more with the public. However, the initial strong collaboration slowly waned and the usual politics soon followed. How can commitment to specific goals be maintained and ensure that the government will not shift back to cautiousness once the crisis has passed?

When making decisions, a traditional role of government has been to maximize society’s welfare, Kumi Naidoo, South African human rights activist remarked. He was critical of governments’ pursuit of GDP growth and the narrow definition of what is positive for the economy, ignoring the world’s finite natural resources. He argued that this decade is highly consequential; both in terms of how governments handle the current pandemic crisis and deal with our proximity to the “climate cliff”. He called for a system redesign and the need for governments to redefine welfare and wealth, including reevaluating what makes people happy (arts, culture, community). He echoed the sentiment of governments’ role in public finances: “deciding how to spend money is the single biggest decision of the government”. Kumi stated that governments should usher in collaborative budgeting and increasingly tax the resource use (not incomes). Are the rich paying their fair share?

Kaave Pour, CEO of a research and design lab in Denmark, stated that governments need to engage citizens in conversations in a way that they understand while being a source of inspiration and hope. In countries where opinions are divided, are governments capable of playing these roles? He also raised the changing role of government due to technology. While governments continue to issue passports and identity cards, digital identity has increasingly become a private sector issue. Government must play a role in safeguarding citizens and their data in the digital world and enable continued technological innovation. While the pandemic may have suggested an urgent need to add new missions, ministries, and mantles to the government toolbox, perhaps there are tasks government should do less of? Maybe governments can bring in expertise and people, working with the private sector and NGOs, when the circumstances require. This way government is not just a regulator and provider, but also a connector of capabilities from different segments of the economy and society.

Manizha Wafeq, head of the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce explained, the crisis helped us to learn and see new opportunities. Contrary to initial tepidness towards the private sector, it became an important partner during the crisis, delivering food and care packages in the neighborhoods where government services did not reach. The initial reluctance to cooperate with private actors was due to fear that private health providers, for example, will raise fees due to heightened demand for services, limiting access. Another opportunity to learn from the Afghan experience is how to secure people’s livelihoods when they were impacted by lockdowns. Due to the lack of safety nets and savings, the street vendors had to break the government rules in order to continue earning income.

Concluding the discussion, The World Bank’s Director of the Governance Global Practice Edward Olowo-Okere hoped that the pandemic would provide an opportunity for change. The role of government is not only to respond to crisis but to take a longer-term view, even a dream-future perspective on development.  New social contracts seem necessary, based on national conversations on future scenarios, whereas the ideological dilemmas (regarding small or big governments) seem less relevant. Instead, administrations need to ask: what are the capacities needed to deliver?

Watch the event replay.

What are your thoughts about the changing role(s) of government? Leave your comments below.

Continue the conversation via Twitter @wbg_gov using the hashtag #FutureOfGovernment, via our website at, or by leaving a comment below. 


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Marje Aksli

Consultant, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Sylvester Odhiambo Obong'o, PhD
June 29, 2021

Governments are formed to deliver services to the citizens. Early philosophies on the role of government, by Hobbes, Locke and the rest revolved around the roles of government as that of ensuring social, political order and ensure that human live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict. That thinking has not changed much in principle, except that in doing all these there is now issues of governance and citizen focus.

Having said that, I wish therefore to suggest that whereas the ROLE OF GOVERNMENT has not changed much, how it ensures it delivers on that mandate has kept on changing from time to time. Neo-liberal thinking of "less state involvement" and NPM saw the mode of delivery of this role revolutionised with concepts of privatization, contracting out and commercialization of hirtherto government functions.

I would argue that what changed with the coming of these concepts was not the Role of Government, but how government delivered its role. The delivery vehicle. In all these changes, the Government delegated responsibility but NOT ACCOUNTABILITY. Even in a liberalised economy - The Public Service - (Government) primary role is to protect the INTEREST OF ITS CITIZENS.

From the foregoing therefore, to avoid confusion the term Government may be confused with - the ruling party, government in Power!! I would then use the term- the ROLE OF THE STATE. If the State is then taken to mean Government then the fundamental role of Government, remains to protect its citizens, and ensure efficient, effective, professional and neutral delivery of service to them.

How the above is delivered has however changed from time to time depending on the environment. In Conclusion, I am therefore submitting that the - role of the State (Government) does rarely change- but the HOW is what has always changed.

August 03, 2021

I think the COVID-19 period has exposed gaps in the present thinking on the role of government as enunciated by the major Public Administration paradigms. In South Africa, for example, recently we saw a situation where government sluggish response to the socio-economic effects of the pandemic led to riots. It is evident that a slow/absent government can lead to disastrous consequences. The fragmented government that government scholars argue seem to be imaginary, as we see in different countries, because it is slow in crisis situations. Also, the government must take a leading role to provide safety nets and social services to the poor. As more thinking shifts towards network government, and as the state collaborate with other partners to mobilise resources, deliver public goods, and regulate markets, it must be able to strategically use its might in a way that protects the poor. In the future government must play a balancing role in the economy. Probably more scholarly inquiries must look at how the Chinese model of government can also inform governance frameworks that can serve in the post-Covid19 period.