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. 


Blogs in the Future of Government series


Donna Andrews

Global Lead for Public Institutions Reform in the Governance Global Practice, World Bank

Tim Williamson

Tim Williamson, World Bank’s Global Lead for Public Financial Management, Public Investment Management and Subnational Governance for the World Bank

Marje Aksli

Consultant, World Bank

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