Anticipatory governance means different things to different people. For some, it is about envisioning, future forecasting, and scenario building in policymaking and planning. For others, it is about accelerating learning loops by engaging citizens to input real-time data and feedback to make decision-making participatory. The Covid-19 crisis was a wake-up call for the civil service to embrace an approach that is anticipatory and not reactive in nature. His Majesty The King stressed the need for reform in the civil service in his Royal Address on Bhutan’s 113th National Day last month, bringing a renewed sense of urgency to this pressing need of the hour.

So, what would anticipatory governance in the civil service look like? For Bhutan, three learnings from the pandemic stand out:

Accelerated innovation and experimentation: A year ago, the civil service system was equipped with processes that require extended periods to establish partnerships, budget, and execute a plan. But ever since Covid-19 struck the country in March, we saw civil servants testing digital ideas at an accelerated rate to learn what works and what doesn’t. In a way, the pandemic became a catalyst for rapid innovation and experimentation in the public sector.

Embedded ‘next generation’ engagement platforms: The pandemic rather abruptly eliminated the traditional method of in-person citizen engagement. Almost overnight, there was an emergence of national information hotlines and social media platforms, for the public to receive critical information on multiple services.

These e-engagement platforms provided a feedback loop for citizens to articulate their preferences, grievances, and other proposals that would help them better navigate and adapt to the fast-evolving pandemic. As a result, it placed citizens at the core of an iterative designing process.

Focused on co-creation and co-production: Going out of traditional institutional silos, civil servants used or built networks to access ideas and resources through new partnerships, cooperation and collaborations across agencies as well as with the private sector. We observed an increase in flexibility and mobility within public servants and across communities for redeployment to strengthen efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated that in times of difficulties, the public in general relies on the government to come to the rescue, reinforcing the need to future-proof the civil service. So, what can be done? Here are some ideas that would help chart a post-Covid pathway for the civil service.

Build capabilities in foresight: The government’s ability to anticipate is directly linked to the capacities of the civil service in future thinking, foresight tools and practices. A cohort of civil servants who are curious, on a constant lookout for signs of change, and strive towards continuous improvement is key. A good case in point is Centre for Strategic Futures established by the Singapore government. The Centre has been successful in integrating foresight in the public service’s consciousness, by stress testing current strategies and policies. Perhaps, it’s about time that Bhutan had something like this in place. It would be worth establishing a Future’s Commission.

Enhance co-production of services: The role of civil servants could gradually transition to become facilitators for co-production of services. Tools and techniques on design thinking can be used to develop solutions with citizens to cater to their evolving needs. This may also entail adopting a more client-based service offer approach by considering empathy in public service education and training. In the end, what’s important is to view citizens as active partners and not passive customers waiting to consume services provided by the government. The Swedish government, for example, provides platforms for citizens to engage in the co-production of many services. Likewise, Singapore initiated an idea sprint, calling on the public to contribute and co-create solutions to address the Covid-19 crisis.

Foster inter-agency collaboration: To encourage collaboration beyond agency boundaries, civil servants will need to understand how the same problems can spill and interact across ministries and agencies. It is important to tap into these integrated networks of knowledge that offer access to low hanging fruits for integrated decision making.

Estonia’s ‘once-only’ principle is a great example for institutionalising inter-agency collaboration into structured routine settings. It mandates the state to re-use the information submitted by any citizen or business instead of asking for the same information again.

Inter-agency collaborations also require implementing the practice of coordinated leadership. This emerging leadership paradigm sometimes termed as distributed or adaptive leadership encourages leaders to direct their employees towards collaborative efforts to get results rather than solely limiting efforts within the agency.

Improve service intelligence: We live in a data age where every agency is generating huge amount of data. But unless the data is structured and shared in real time at an accelerated pace, it might not be of any public value. For instance, decisions are made on statistics and publications that suffer from a substantial time lag.

What is required here is a common data bank, which not only breaks down data silos but also ensures data accessibility in real-time. Such digital spaces could be further expanded to include open-ended processes and synergistic feedback loops enabling a real-time governance framework.

Other prospective ideas include developing an innovation playbook for the civil servants. An interagency group could be convened to develop the toolkit consisting of creative tools and techniques such as hackathons, citizen science, crowdsourcing and human centered design thinking among others. Nesta’s playbook for innovation learning is a good resource.

A dedicated innovation fund might just provide the right condition to not only break silos but also instill a culture of innovation among the civil servants. The government of Canada has a dedicated public sector innovation budget for each ministry and agency. Furthermore, it’s also equally important to create incentives to encourage civil servants to innovate. For instance, providing fast track promotions as a reward for those who are delivering results differently and better.

Given the far-reaching impact of the civil service in driving services, they have a stake in ensuring that they are equipped with the right skills, incentives and an ecosystem to innovate. The Covid-19 crisis provides a once in a generation opportunity to transform the civil service ecosystem, and to ensure fast, relevant and agile recovery pathways that are more inclusive, greener and sustainable in alignment with the ethos of a Gross National Happiness nation.

Contributed by 

Azusa Kubota, 

UNDP Resident Representative

Tshoki Zangmo

 Head of Exploration, UNDP Bhutan Accelerator Lab

Note: The official launch of the Accelerator Lab is happening today, January 12, from 10:00 to 11:30 am. Follow the event live on UNDP FB page (@UNDPBhutan).