The future of government: a new social contract for the 21st Century?

This page in:
A young Egyptian protester holding an Egyptian flag, Cairo, Egypt A young Egyptian protester holding an Egyptian flag, Cairo, Egypt

Before one can properly answer the question about governments’ future role, we need to understand how people feel about their leaders, given that the pandemic has claimed more than 3.8 million lives  and led to job losses four times greater than during the global financial crisis in 2009. The latest analysis by Edelman Trust Barometer, the longest-running global trust survey, concludes that the pandemic has accelerated the erosion of trust and indicates “an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world”.

Although most major economies saw an initial uptick in trust, once the virus started spreading and people turned to their leaders for guidance, the gains quickly dissipated due to poor leadership. People rejected the ‘talking heads’ who they deemed not credible. In fact, none of the leaders the Edelman Trust Barometer tracks – government officials, CEOs, journalists, or religious figures – are trusted to do what is right. We are certainly facing a crisis of confidence.

Downstream from distrust

What happens when people stop trusting their leaders? First, they become suspicious. As we’ve witnessed, many people do not trust state-led vaccine programs. Second, people start taking matters into their own hands to affect change.   Recently, Shell was taken to court by Dutch citizens and has now been ordered to cut its CO2 emissions by 45 percent to 2019 levels. This is the first time a company has been legally obliged to align its policies with the Paris climate accord. Third, people protest. More people are hitting the streets than ever before. Research carried out by the Center of Strategic and International Studies – a Washington-based think tank – shows the number of mass protests globally has increased by 11.5 percent per year, on average, since 2009. 

The social contract needs to be rebuilt

What we need now is not system recovery, maintenance, or protection but instead system innovation, transformation, and redesign of governance systems. What would the social contract for the 21st century look like?  The first step is to genuinely start committing time and resources to participatory forms of decision-making. It is not a novel idea, but it could be genuinely transformative. Citizen assemblies and national dialogues should be linked to government decision-making, and power and resources should be decentralized into local communities.  In addition to bringing people around the table, it is necessary to benchmark results against inclusion goals.

In Porto Alegre, Brazil,  a 10-year experiment in effective participatory budgeting allowed large numbers of people, predominantly socially excluded groups, to determine whether to prioritize city funding for education, water, sanitation, or healthcare and they achieved striking outcomes. First, the provision of city services, previously concentrated in richer areas, became much more accessible in lower-income neighborhoods. Another positive outcome was the decline in partisan politics – people became more interested in the actual issues. Third, transparent decision-making helped to reduce corruption as the provision of city contracts no longer took place between the guarded city elites and contractors.

Going forward

To fight climate change and biodiversity loss, governments need to tax resource use. They also need to actively support bottom-up green entrepreneurship.  This is particularly important for the informal economy where most people live, work, and trade. To lower crippling inequality, it is important to overhaul the fiscal regime so that the poorest can take home higher incomes and the rich pay their fair share in taxes.  Governments should manage the competing demands of the public and private sector by taking responsibility as regulators seriously.

Building more effective, accountable, and resilient governments is more necessary than ever and is a challenge that we should come together to tackle.  International development organizations, such as the World Bank, would benefit from continuing to engage with a wide spectrum of stakeholders to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.

If you want to hear more from Kumi, you can watch the Disruptive Debate replay.

You can contribute to the conversation via Twitter @wbg_gov using the hashtag #FutureOfGovernment, our website at, or by simply leaving a comment below.

Blogs in the Future of Government series

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000