Understanding what people want from their leaders: the first Future of Government Disruptive Debate

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Technicians working in the programming of supply drones for hospitals in Rwanda. Technicians working in the programming of supply drones for hospitals in Rwanda.

On May 12th, the World Bank’s Governance Global Practice held the first of six disruptive debates in the Future of Government series, which aim to provide global leaders and thinkers with a platform to share views and ideas on how governments might seize the opportunity from the current global pandemic crisis and looming climate crisis to achieve a greener, more resilient, and more inclusive future development outcomes.

What will be the demands on and future objectives of government?  That was the focus of the first debate with Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University; Molly Morgan Jones, The British Academy; and Ranjitsinh Disale, Global Teacher Prize Winner. Melinda Crane moderated the discussion.

The global pandemic highlighted how government decisions and actions are critical to people’s lives and livelihoods.  Understanding what people want from their leaders is essential. Ranjitsinh Disale posited that whilst health is currently everyone’s primary concern, citizens are unsure how long online learning will continue and how governments can address the stark differences in learning opportunities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Molly Morgan Jones underlined that citizens’ demands are fluid right now, especially that many countries are mid-COVID crisis at best, and for many, it is very much on-going. But one thing is certain: people are asking more from their governments.

It is less clear whether citizens are aware of the need to address the trade-offs required with competing objectives and limited public finances. For example, people’s livelihoods today versus the future viability of natural assets and biodiversity, or today’s social welfare and insurance schemes versus tomorrow’s need to pay back government debts. There are also competing short term needs – opening up the economy versus controlling the spread of the pandemic and keeping children in school versus shielding the elderly from exposure to the pandemic, which are real challenges for today’s government leaders.

Citizens' demands and expectations are rising fast and outstripping government capability to respond.  What can be done to better align government response capabilities with citizen expectations? Francis Fukuyama aptly pointed out that the expectations of governments have been rising faster than their ability to provide services, and people’s expectations are not stable and consistent.

When governments don’t meet expectations, trust is undermined and eroded. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has focused people’s attention on the question of trust, and unsurprisingly, the debate presented several conundrums:

  • Transparency without accountability: As governments respond to demands, communication must be done openly and transparently to support trust, Molly Jones argues. Yet when transparency exists, without accountability to back it up, people become more cynical, more frustrated.
  • Too much transparency? The Internet now brings too much information from too many sources, said Francis Fukuyama. Governments have a role to play, especially during a crisis, in harnessing technology in a way that is good for citizens and being the honest broker in what information is actually relevant.
  • It’s the messenger, not the message; participation, not the product. Fukuyama also pointed out that the problem has become the messenger rather than the message. People simply do not trust certain institutions, for example, public health institutions which have given perceived or actual conflicting information or guidance on the pandemic.
  • Expectations are focused nationally, yet delivery is local. Morgan-Jones pointed out that local level structures are crucial for delivering services. There is a need to marry top-down support with investments in lower-level expertise. Trust in local institutions can counterbalance any lack thereof or frustration with national institutions.

20th century methods versus 21st century reality. Many questions were raised regarding the place and pace of technology. Prioritizing digital infrastructure for critical services is crucial. Yet large disparities exist in digital access. Ranjitsinh Disale emphasized that virtual and distance teaching can allow millions more to teach and learn; he argues internet access should be understood as a basic right of all students, indeed all citizens.

These are only some of the issues discussed. What are your thoughts about the demands and future objectives of government? You can contribute to the conversation via Twitter @wbg_gov using the hashtag #FutureofGovernment or via our website at worldbank.org/en/programs/futureofgovernment or simply leave a comment below.



Watch the replay from the second Disruptive Debate tackling the question: How will the role of government change in a post-COVID world?

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

Jacques Rosenberg

Consultant in the Governance Global Practice at the World Bank

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