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Article Article July 17th, 2015

How government leaders can move from vision to reality

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Hans-Paul Buerkner: there is almost always a conflict between theory and reality

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Hans-Paul Buerkner: Newly elected politicians need to implement reforms as soon as possible

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Hans-Paul Buerkner: Early is the ideal time to ask if policies are achieving their objectives

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Picture new government leaders. Fresh from the campaign trail, they are primed, enthusiastic and keen to get down to work. Promises have been made, votes have been won but now comes the hard part: turning a policy proposal into practical reality.

The weeks and months immediately after an election are rich with opportunity. While the temptation to get some rest after the pressure of a 24/7 campaign is understandable, newly-elected politicians should use this period to hit the ground running. History abounds with examples of administrations that have introduced reforms which proved popular in the long term, but whose short-term unpopularity propelled their creators out of office. For voters to appreciate the benefit of a reform by the time of the next election, politicians need to ensure they are implemented as soon as possible. Only then will their true impact be felt - and duly appreciated - at the ballot box.

But while governments are helped by the fact that their defeated political opponents are likely to be facing inward and regrouping, they should also remember, even in the first flush of electoral victory, that implementing reforms is never easy. It requires patience, foresight and a detailed plan. And it takes time.

Channelling change

There is no doubt that being elected to office opens a door to huge potential and opportunity, but there is almost always a conflict between theory and reality. From the well-funded lobbyists representing special interest groups to the humble citizen who objects to a new school or road being built next door, resistance can be an everyday occurrence. No wonder governments often struggle to get things done.

And politics can itself play a part in this impasse. The interests of politicians are often aligned to shorter-term political interests rather than longer-term impact. The sheer size and complexity of many public services is another factor. Managing the machine can evolve into being the only priority, leaving implementing reforms very much on the sidelines.

The challenges also differ from place to place. Government leaders in emerging markets often focus on delivering the basics - like getting kids to school - whereas their counterparts in developed markets are more likely to be concentrating on improving the quality of the teaching and the quality of the school.

Emerging markets do, however, have some advantages. They are well placed to learn from the past mistakes of developed countries and also have fewer legacy systems and legacy issues, which means they are freer to be more courageous in many ways. These experiences could hopefully inspire people in developed markets to be more creative and innovative in their approach to reform and delivery.

And another potential catalyst for reform is the fallout from the financial crisis. The global economy may well have turned a corner but, for governments, the after-effects of the recession continue to play out across borders in the form of deficits and debt. Now is the ideal time to examine certain policies and spending programmes and ask whether they are achieving their objectives. Austerity doesn't necessarily have to be just a straitjacket, but can actually be a route map for more effective government.

Towards greater impact

When I was chief executive of The Boston Consulting Group we set up our global public sector practice because I felt very strongly that BCG should help government agencies, not just private sector organisations, to really shape the future. Today, this ambition continues to hold true.

Governments are confronted today by increasing demands from their citizens for better policies, better services and better delivery mechanisms. At the same time, budget constraints mean it is of enormous importance to create more bang for the buck. To do so, policymakers need to share their experiences - both good and bad - with their counterparts from around the world. The Centre for Public Impact will help. Our global forums will highlight what has worked and draw out the experiences that will enable governments to achieve better outcomes for citizens.

BCG has a passion for getting things done. Ours is an organisation where every individual wants to have an impact and where, in the words of our founder Bruce Henderson, we strive to change the world. We are committed to strengthening public impact and enabling governments to change the world for the better. The Centre for Public Impact will help us make that vision a reality.



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  • Transforming disability, transforming lives. Recognising that disability can happen to anyone, anytime, Australia's policymakers have embarked on an innovative and ambitious scheme to transform the lives of people with disability. Here, David Bowen, head of the new National Disability Insurance Agency, tells Miguel Carrasco about the progress so far

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