How will governments be more productive? This is the big question addressed in the fourth installment of World Bank’s six disruptive debates and constructive conversations in the Future of Government series, held on 1 September 2021.

The forum aims to provide global leaders and thinkers an avenue to share views and ideas on how governments might seize the opportunity from the current global pandemic crisis and climate crisis to achieve greener, more resilient, and more inclusive future development (GRID) outcomes. It featured global experts such as Francis Maude, Peck Kem Low, Francisco Gaetani, Marta Arsovska Tomovska, Edward Olowo-Okere, and Raj Kumar.

Government Productivity

Government productivity is fundamental to the world’s future. The pressure to do more with less is heightened now more than ever, especially as the time frame for Sustainable Development Goals achievement nears its end and the global pandemic remains ongoing.

Maude, FMA chairman and former UK Minister, shared his insight on how this can be carried out. First is by ensuring efficiency. He shared about how he had helped in reforming procurement during his term in the UK government program in efficiency and reform. “We did a huge digital transformation program which saved a lot of money but also got the UK ranked best in the world by the UN for e-government,” Maude added.

Maude noted that the government’s procurement of goods and services from outside must be done better. Specifically, he highlighted the necessity of getting rid of restrictive practices that can, in the end, corner the government with an oligopoly of suppliers. He added, “In the UK, we got rid of a lot of the restrictive practices. That was a real factor in driving or enabling the huge growth upsurge in the tech sector. Startups were finally able to bid for and win government contracts and they grew off the back of it. So procurement, major projects, digital transformation, all of that– these are reforms available to every government that [are] crucial.”

Another factor he brought forward was impact investment, a strategy that aims to generate positive social and environmental impact alongside financial returns. A few examples of this are government partnerships with small social entrepreneurs and efforts to support environmental initiatives with economic benefits. The UK was the first in the world to set up a social investment bank, which offers another, more holistic option to address social problems other than providing in-house services or having to go full on conventional, commercial outsourcing.

Digital transformation toward improving productivity

Tomovska, director for Public Administration Reform and eGovernment at the Office of the Prime Minister of Serbia, shared how they were able to realize ‘doing more with less’ in Serbia through digital transformation. She underlined the value of investing in digital transformation given that there are still governments that are apprehensive about what such a shift may entail.

“Some governments are hesitant to take this road. Either they don’t have a vision or they don’t have enough talent in the government for digital transformation. Sometimes, investment is a challenge because digitalization itself is not a cheap toy. But the crisis showed that every single dollar invested in the digital transformation of the government paid off and then paid over big time,” she explained.

The director, who was also the former Macedonian Minister for ICT and Public Administration, pointed out that digital transformation not only makes services more efficient, more effective, and low cost, but more so it provides a safeguard against corruption. She said, “In some parts of the world where corruption is a challenge, digital government can be seen as an excellent tool to fight corruption. There is no physical contact, no discretionary decisions; everything is recorded in the system”

Tomovska also cited a few technologies that are now in the spotlight for digital transformation. One of which includes automated decision-making systems which use algorithms that sync across sectors in the government. Tomovska shared that, in Serbia, they were able to save millions of dollars annually and cut down costs in terms of time, electricity, water, and even paper sheets because of the said innovation. In the past two years alone, they were able to save around 180 million sheets of paper, which is equivalent to 18 thousand trees, 76 ml. water, and six thousand watt-hours of electricity. Another example she mentioned was big data and algorithms for data-driven policies, which contribute to better planning, improved outcomes, and increased savings.

She also shared about software robots that can do basic routine tasks. She added, ‘[The technology] frees up hours for some crucial things, for example, dealing much more with the citizens and understanding their needs. There are a lot of things to be done there. And we’ve seen some numbers, which are in billions of dollars, with what would be the cost savings if we introduce this kind of automation.” 

In her conclusion, Tomovska emphasized that digital transformation must be a collective effort. There are many avenues for cooperation to contribute to government productivity.  The private sector, startups, and innovative companies may play a significant role in this.

Singapore’s Example

Singapore, with its advanced technology and efficiency, may be a hint of what the future of government would look like. 

Fast service is one of the things that the country can take pride in. Chief human resources officer & workforce management advisor in the Singapore Government, Kem shared, “Today, in Singapore, when you land in Singapore airport, from the point you land to the point you’ve grabbed your luggage bag, checkout and get a taxi, [it would take] no more than ten minutes. That’s the level of technology that we have invested in.”

Kem spoke about how Singapore has been focusing its efforts in driving towards a smart nation. Given the country’s limited resources, going digital is not merely an option but is integral to its system.

She explained, “For us, going high tech or digital is not an option, mainly because we are so small and we really don’t have enough people. We don’t have natural resources. Our only natural resource is our people, even our people, we don’t have enough Singaporeans per se, and one-third of our workforce is really from all over the world… because we don’t have the warm bodies to fill those jobs, very often, we have to make use of technology in order to still deliver services, and yet, high touch.”