How to make governments more productive in the post-COVID world: Lessons from Brazil

This page in:
A woman in a yellow shirt sits behind an old computer, while a man stands across from her waiting A woman in a yellow shirt sits behind an old computer, while a man stands across from her waiting

This blog post is part of a series for the Future of Government Disruptive Debates, an initiative by the World Bank’s Governance Global Practice


COVID-19 has been the greatest – and in many ways the most brutal – accelerator of digital transformation in history, with profound consequences for the private and public sectors. 

The economic fallout of the pandemic has put enormous pressures on public finances. But rather than get bogged down in the polarizing debate about fiscal policies, the smart response is to focus on productivity gains that contribute to greater fiscal space regardless of the underlying policies to raise revenues or reign in spending.

The recovery from the pandemic will also likely remain uneven, and governments need to be more proactive than ever to support the recovery process. This requires raising the productivity of the public sector through capacity development, adopting active change management approaches and balancing local context demands with global innovation. 

Good public policies are by definition, determined by local context. All countries might be on the same page when faced with the impact of the pandemic, but initial contexts are very different.


In Brazil, for example, the response of the federal government was uneven at the outbreak of the pandemic. Even so, the government was able to capitalize on newly initiated technologies to respond to the public’s increased demand for online services. Conecte SUS, a platform that has the potential to store all Brazilians’ health data, was only introduced in late 2019. When COVID-19 began, the platform’s IT department developed a contingency plan and restructured a compulsory web-based notification system that also offered telemedicine for immediate patient care. In less than four months, TeleSUS made 7.4 million calls. This helped improve communication between health care workers and the population at a crucial time and improved public service delivery. Clearly, there was a need for such a product in Brazil.

Yet focusing exclusively on local context, risks underestimating the opportunities offered by new technology. Plenty of countries have accomplished remarkable productivity growth by adopting leapfrogging techniques, and the pandemic has provided governments with new impetus to do the same. Change management is also particularly important when introducing new technologies. Currently, the public and private sectors have different levels of knowledge about digital solutions and government officials will be able to catch up if they collaborate with experts in the technology industry. To achieve this, governments need to be open and willing to embark on new, untested initiatives and partnerships with the private sector.

In fact, we need multiple approaches to make governments more open to change and capitalizing on opportunities to modernize.  The Brazilian federal government recently sent a proposal to facilitate public sector workforce flexibility to the Brazilian Senate. The proposal called for multiple contract arrangements to provide greater flexibility in the public sector workforce and to ultimately make governments more responsive to the demands of citizens.

I have been advocating for a more permanent but flexible workforce; this may seem paradoxical at first, but I believe that greater flexibility will lead to greater productivity.

Capacity development should involve strengthening “soft skills,” such as judgment, adaptability, negotiation, empathy, problem-solving, resilience and diplomacy. Governments face a particular challenge when working with their senior workforce as  some these officials have often struggled to keep up with new technologies and more innovative work practices. Upskilling this important part of the workforce has been a major challenge in the public sector, and it should be a priority for governments who are eager to increase their productivity.

At the same time governments are also looking for mechanisms to help rejuvenate their personnel. Flexible hiring mechanisms have been created in Brazil  – initially on an experimental basis – in order to make the workplace more open to digitally savvy entrants. New institutional civil service frameworks, revised institutional arrangements, and contemporary and efficient legal solutions are urgently needed to take full advantage of the COVID crisis situation in the public sector and attract the talent of the future.

Improving productivity has still not been embedded as a permanent goal in the Brazilian public sector administration but creating civil servant’s awareness of what this means  will be key to driving productivity gains.  


Governments have the tools to accelerate innovation and drive productivity and need to think strategically about how they can staff-up to capitalize on this.  The post-COVID realities may leave the public sector workers no choice but to embrace technological solutions and begin using them. 


You can find more information on the World Bank’s Future of Government Initiative here.


Blogs in the Future of Government series


Francisco Gaetani


Join the Conversation

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