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Podcast Article June 20th, 2023

Reimagining Government episode 1: transcript

🎙️ Reimagining Government

In partnership with Apolitical, this six-part podcast explores radical new approaches to addressing global issues such as the climate crisis, equitable healthcare provision, and rebuilding trust with marginalised communities. By speaking with public servants and politicians at the heart of government, we’ll shine a light on how to reimagine government so it works for everyone.


Adrian Brown: [00:00:00] We are currently facing one of the most challenging moments in human history. In recent years, complex problems like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate crisis, and persistent racial and economic inequity have brought into sharp focus the need for government to work differently. There is a growing movement of government change makers around the world, pushing beyond the current debate about what government does to address the more fundamental questions of how government should operate.

Reimagining Government is a podcast where we shine a light on these changemakers. Sharing their ideas on how to reimagine a new government equipped to face modern challenges and find real solutions. My name is Adrian Brown, and before becoming Executive director at the Center of a Public Impact, I worked for the UK Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, the strategy unit, and as a policy advisor in the Prime Minister's office, I've spent 20 years working on government performance and transformation internationally and in the UK. [00:01:00]

In this episode, I want to lay out a new vision for government. - where it needs to be improved, and introduce you to the people who have dedicated their careers to enhancing public services for all.

I will be speaking to guests who have inspired this vision and are putting its principles to work in their communities.Our current modals of government are not working, so what's the solution?

Public servants tend to choose that career to make a difference in society, helping people and their communities to thrive. With boundless resources, the task would be much more straightforward, but alas, that is not the way of the world. Government changemakers face many barriers to achieving the change they wish to see in their communities, and chief among them is the budget they have to work with.

Budgets are often tight at the best of times, but what happens when governments are facing extreme budget cuts? If you'd [00:02:00] allow me, I'd like to take you back to where it all began, for me anyway. Let me introduce you to my hometown of Wigan.

Excerpts from Wigan audio archives: Wigan itself is a very old place. It stands here roughly halfway between the crossing of the Mersey and the crossing of the Ribble. Wigan man, and this tussle of the Titans kicking off deep into the end goal area, the line of defence.

Adrian Brown: Wigan is a borough in the north-west of England sitting on the River Douglas. I have fond memories of my childhood here and the strong sense of community.

Excerpts from Wigan audio archives: How would you describe the atmosphere of Wigan Market Hall?

More or less, a family, family atmosphere.

Adrian Brown: In 2010, the British government introduced so-called austerity measures across the country. In response to the ongoing recession, Wigan was the third most affected local authority in England.

Wigan Council had to deal with substantial budget cuts and devise new ways to continue providing [00:03:00] services and serving the community. How did they approach this unprecedented challenge?

Donna Hall: I think we realised back in 2011 we had a a stark choice. Do we just start to cut services like other councils around us were doing, or do we start to try to change the way we work with residents so that it's more of a partnership rather than a transactional, paternalistic parent-child relationship, as very often happens with public services and the people that they serve.

Adrian Brown: Donna Hall is Chair of New local and former Chief executive of Wigan Council. From the years 2010 to 2014, during her time at Wigan Council, she led what became known as the deal.

Donna Hall: So the deal was, um, uh, it describes a relationship really.

It's a strategy that's essentially about, let's you know, we're in this together, we've gotta work together to get through the worst effects of austerity. We wanted to, uh, appreciate the fact that people didn't have much money and they were gonna have less money as a result of austerity.

So one of the things that we did is our part of the deal [00:04:00] was to freeze council tax for a period of around eight years. So that meant an additional over the eight year period, an additional £500 per household per year. Um, which kind of helped with the impact, the worst impact of austerity on, on families. The deal was a relationship. It was a partnership with citizens rather than a strategy developed in a darkened room by senior people in organizations and senior councillors.

It was opening ourselves up to new ideas from residents and a recognition that status quo wasn't really survivable, um, unless we wanted to be an emaciated version of the council that we were.

Adrian Brown: The deal is composed of several smaller deals on healthcare, children's services, social services, and community funding.

As Donna mentioned, it has been successful in many ways. Wigan Council has reduced its expenses, improved the public's trust in local government, frozen council tax, and improved health outcomes for citizens. By creating the deal, Wigan Council [00:05:00] challenged unnecessary hierarchies and chose to collaborate across boundaries - key principle of the emerging vision for government that Donna and other changemakers are spearheading.

Donna Hall: So rather than just adapting an existing public service model, which doesn't help people, it just passes people around, we wanted to rethink it, create neighborhood teams that got to know individuals in those groups and, and really help and support them invest in the community and voluntary sector. So we put £12 million into something called the Community Investment Fund, where ideas came from local citizens themselves, and they would tell us what was needed in the local area rather than us just thinking that we knew what was best for people. That's how the idea kind of became a fully fledged deal.

The good thing about it is it wasn't just a one off strategy that was about me or the leader of the council at the time, or the management team. It was very much about the place rather than the individual leaders. You see very often you get a new leader in an organisation or in a, in a place and they come up with a new strategy then they [00:06:00] leave after a couple of years and the strategy goes with them. So we wanted something that would stick, that would last, uh, that was co-designed with local citizens. And that's what we've created in, in the deal.

Adrian Brown: Transferring responsibility to the community was both a result of reduced budgets and recognition of the importance of people's investment in their local area. It involves seeking the strength of the people and neighborhood, and building on it.

Donna Hall: We tried to adopt a kind of whole person, whole family, whole system, whole neighborhood approach. So it was really important that we built on the assets of the local places and the local people. Uh, whether it was, um, a branch of McDonald's, whether it was a Gregg's pie shop, whether it was a Betfred shop, whatever it was that was in a local neighbourhood.

We saw that as an asset and tried to work intensively with all of those assets. People don't live their lives in little boxes of, you know, public services businesses, you know, transport infrastructure. It's that whole neighbourhood approach to where [00:07:00] people live, um, and work and how we can you know, maximize the use of everybody's time and energy in that local area.

One of the things that we did was, um, in a place called Platt Bridge where we piloted some of this work. There was a branch of McDonald's there and you might think, well, you know, why would, why would McDonald's be an asset? But the manager of that McDonald's was, um, a former child who'd been in care and was really passionate about activities for young people and keeping young people motivated and helping them to get good employment.

So there was quite a lot of antisocial behavior in and around Platt Bridge at the time. So he helped us set up youth groups with the local young people, designed by them and with them where his staff and staff from the council and other local people would come and help and support those young people to you know, avoid them getting involved in the antisocial behavior that was happening and try and give them something different to do in a place where there wasn't much going on really.

So, you know, it is about businesses. It is about neighbors working together and supporting each other. [00:08:00] That was kind of at the heart of the deal.

Adrian Brown: Wigan’s story shows us how transformative inventive ideas from public servants and policy makers can be, but change makers like Donna are not alone in their efforts.

Robyn Scott is CEO and co-founder of Apolitical. Apolitical has compiled the Agile 50, a list of the world's 50 most influential people revolutionizing governance. She speaks with a celebrated member of that list, Bruna Santos, Innovation Director at Brazil's National School of Public Administration about how they're delivering a new vision for government.

Robyn Scott: I'm Robyn Scott. I'm co-founder and CEO of Apolitical and I'm thrilled to be speaking to Bruna Santos, who until very recently was the director of Innovation at ENAP the Brazilian National School of Public Administration, which is responsible for training an astonishing 11 million public servants across national, state, and local government in Brazil. [00:09:00]

Bruna is now a senior advisor to the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Bruna, you were recognized by Apolitical and the World Economic Forum on our shared Agile 50 list, which recognizes the world's 50 most influential people revolutionizing governance. Tell me what does agile governance and government mean to you?

Bruna Santos: Agile governance for me means the future of governance and, uh, the future of governance has four main characteristics. One is a less rigid model of deciding and doing things. Getting things done quickly. Uh, two is being more anticipatory. Anticipate the future. At the same time you are, uh, agile, you are, you are iterating your decisions and your models.

Three are more collaborative and humble forms of leadership [00:10:00] and agile governance is a governance where you have leaders who are also collaborative and, uh, humble, and four, of course, people-centric, centered on users, on citizens, on people's needs.

Robyn Scott: Those are four inspiring pillars, and clearly they need to be enabled at the level of institutions, but ultimately they're about the way people act in government. So just to probe on that a little bit, what do you see as the key skills enabling those four pillars of a modern public servant?

Bruna Santos: I'd say it's the capability to solve problems, to frame and to solve problems in innovative ways.

I think that this is a, uh, one thing that is extremely important, uh, for, to build the future of governance. Two, is, is the capability of, uh, alliances. And working in networks. And three is building digital fluency, which is in being, uh [00:11:00], capable of navigating the digital world, not necessarily learning how to code or to to build an app, but navigating it, making decisions based on premises of the digital world.

Robyn Scott: Having heard you talk about fluency before and having stolen and appropriated that term, which I find incredibly useful, and just building on that Bruna, can you give an example of where those competencies you've just described have been successfully used in the Brazilian context?

Bruna Santos: So, uh, for example, fluency in the digital world. At ENAP, we delivered a number of projects, we call them transformation projects, and they helped, uh, people solve problems at the same time they were building, uh, capabilities.

One of them was, uh, to redesign the website, which is the Google of the public services in Brazil, where it, uh, it's a portal where it concentrates all the public services. And throughout this process we went [00:12:00] to listen to users. We applied design research to this project, and with that, public servants were able to understand how to go through a designing service process so they could understand how important it is to have a blueprint of your service based on your users' needs.

And that's one of the things I call both innovative problem solving capability linked with what I call digital fluency. Because you understand the needs of your, of your user and how they're gonna interact with your, uh, digital interface. Doesn't matter if it's an app or a portal or like a desktop, it doesn't matter.

Like you understand what are the needs, what's behind it. What can or cannot be a possibility for the user or a challenge for them to, to have access to it. So one of the, the things I believe as well is that, uh, whenever you, you are a decision maker and you [00:13:00] understand, uh, the digital world, such as, okay, understand the, the role of interoperability, meaning the possibility of connecting different, uh, systems and making them work together, connecting their, the data behind it.

So if you understand this as a concept, as um, like deeply, you can make decisions based on that. So I have a whole team, uh, working for me here in Brazil, designing a, also a portal, a service to deliver a service of like how to better hire public service for leadership positions in, in Brazil. And one of the things they, they had to do is, okay, how can I make, how can I, I hire softwares, uh, hardwares, everything based on this, uh, concept of interoperability.

So that was, it's just like, it can be like, uh, both in when you are like solving problems or when you are contracting technology, those are like clear [00:14:00], um, problems that were solved in better and faster ways, in more agile ways because of those two capabilities.

Robyn Scott: Now you have a very clear vision and some frameworks for what the governments of the future need to look like and how they need to operate, but there's always resistance. And I wonder if you can speak to across these attributes and capabilities you've mentioned, whether it's um, speaking to users, whether it's humility, whether it's understanding digital and digital fluency and interoperability, where do you find it hardest to see, um, change and to push for change, and how have you overcome that when you meet resistance?

Bruna Santos: For government to change, we have to have very clear what in government we want to preserve. Having that, that picture very clear in my mind and communicating it with data with a good narrative. That could, in a [00:15:00] clear way, make every stakeholder understand the value being delivered by certain innovation or change was every time the, the way I found to, to overcome the status quo.

Robyn Scott: I feel that the challenges facing government in the 21st century are daunting. You are one of the people I think about and sometimes speak to who makes me much more optimistic about our ability to deal with them. Um, and I think anyone listening to you today will, will understand that. When you reflect on your three years at ENAP what are you proudest of? What do you feel exemplifies these guides to modern government that you have set out?

Bruna Santos: My main legacy, I think, is the leadership I prepared to take, not only take the position I was sitting, but the leadership that I saw, uh, growing, [00:16:00] shining, and making change all over the organisation.

I think that's, uh, for me, the most important legacy because leaders come and go, but it's extremely important to prepare people for, for a leadership role. That's, for me the most important part of it. I touched people and I was touched by them, and they made a huge difference in my life, in my career, in the results I delivered.

And I'm really, I'm pretty sure that, uh, innovation, it's pretty much about teams. It's not necessarily about technologists, not necessarily about a management tool or framework. It's about how you're gonna design and, uh, and think of your team. And that's what I'm most proud of.

Adrian Brown: Bruno Santos and ENAP are making a considerable differences to the effectiveness of public sector work in Brazil, seeking out the existing [00:17:00] strengths of public servants and building on them. The ability to recognize where strength lies is fundamental to making transformative changes in government. But it's also an essential skill to appreciate the limitations to what government can achieve alone.

Nachiket Mor is trained as an economist and is a Visiting Scientist at the Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health. He's also a Commissioner of the Lancet Commission on reimagining India's Health System. Nachiket’s current work is principally focused on the design of national and regional health systems in India.

Nachiket Mor explains how in his view, the Indian government should think of itself less as an administrator and more as a facilitator of activity working with the private and non-profit sectors in delivery of services.

Nachiket Mor: The government clearly has an important role if we talk about healthcare in financing healthcare, but it's possible that in many components of delivery, [00:18:00] it turns to non-profits, it turns to the private sector, and of course there are components of it that it does on its own. At the moment, you are not seeing that. The government at the moment has a posture, which suggests it should be the only provider of all services, and that the non-profit sector or the private sector has limited or no role at all.

Adrian Brown: Thinking systemically about how government can work alongside different sectors allows those with industry specific experience and connections with stakeholders to enact solutions at the local level.

Nachiket Mor: It's not as if the private sector in particular is waiting for the government to act. It is already acting. But because the government has not engaged with it in a robust way, it's acting to disrupt the health system, and uh, and take it further away from where we want it to go.

Adrian Brown: In our view, governance should be optimised for learning, not control. A government that is prepared to learn from and with [00:19:00] its community is one that is equipped to tackle modern issues. Education is important. As humans, we never stop learning. Why should the government be any different? Maybe it's time we took the government back to school.

Many call their years in education, the best years of their life. Some may agree, others not so much. But you can't ignore that school plays an essential part in modern society.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen is the Director General of the International Baccalaureate Organization, a global leader in international education. The International Baccalaureate Continuum of School Programs provides a solid, consistent framework and the flexibility to tailor students' education according to their culture and context.

Mr. Heinonen seeks the value in education. [00:20:00] This is clear to see in his current work at the IB and his previous work as Finland's Minister of Education and Science, and as Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education, often described as one of the best in the world. But what can he teach us from his experience working in the sector and his time working in government?

First I wanted to address the radical way in which the Finnish government describes their approach as humble government. I asked Mr. Heinonen what this means.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen: I think it's important to understand the motive that why in Finland there's been this attempt to create something new. The old way didn't work anymore.

It had been very successful in in Finland, but like for example, in the questions of equality and equity, which are very important values in the Finnish society, it didn't deliver [00:21:00] the outcomes that we wanted it to deliver. And we also saw that the new challenges that there were in our society, the growing diversity the kind of constantly changing context of citizens, higher expectations and limited resources meant that we had to create something new. Because of that, there was an approach to create a better functioning culture for public service and, and, and for the government, and that was named Humble Government.

Adrian Brown: This is an effort to build trust. It moves the control from the central government into the hands of people working on the ground. Let's take education as an example.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen: We decided that we will stop pretending that we know the right answers on the national level, but instead we took contact [00:22:00] with the municipalities, the schools, the teachers, or the students. And started asking that what are the main challenges that they are faced with and how can we help?

Adrian Brown: This method of governing dismantles our traditional hierarchy of governance leadership. It also challenges what we currently define as leadership.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen: I think leadership, typically, once that word is said, people start thinking about individuals and that is not actually the point. In this kind of approach leadership is more a quality of the system, and therefore there must be a constant drive to spread the leadership as widely in the system as possible. That there is this responsibility taking, that, this feeling of accountability in the larger system. And, and, and, and that's kind of a [00:23:00] very central part of it.

Adrian Brown: So what is the posture that an elected leader should take to help enable this spirit of leadership to take hold across the system? Politicians in Scandinavia aren't the only ones practising humility.

If you come with me across the pond, let's look at how breaking down traditional hierarchies of governance is improving the delivery of services in a city called Chillicothe. Ohio's first and third capital city, Chillicothe sits in Southern Ohio, near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

It's the only sizable town for quite some miles, giving it the best of both worlds - a community small enough that elected officials are extremely connected to and part of it, and yet sizable enough for [00:24:00] the potential for real impact.

Mayor Luke Feeney is currently serving his second term as Mayor of Chillicothe. He previously served as City Auditor of the Midwestern city and lives there with his family in the historic downtown.

Early in his tenure, Luke noticed some problems with how local government was functioning. He felt the typical methods of community engagement such as monthly public meetings we're failing to identify solutions for the problems facing citizens.

I wanted to ask Luke about how his relationship with community engagement has evolved and the idea of co-designing and collaboration.

Luke Feeney: So I think that, uh, in the past, our engagement, whether it's myself as a mayor with the community or government, as we interact, uh, with the city of Chillicothe or the community at large has had some weaknesses.

We would just kind of sit down and say, "What are your problems?" And we thought that that was uh [00:25:00] pretty good, really. But I think that there were some drawbacks to the way we were communicating before. Uh, and a lot of that just had to do with how we engaged with people not being so intentional about what the, what the engagement was about, sort of thinking through what we were hoping to gain from the engagement, what the public could gain.

And so making, making that engagement a more interactive process and hopefully learning from the public. What it wants, what it needs, and really sometimes how to do things better because that outside perspective enables us to do our jobs better and, uh, deliver services in a way that, um, the public can appreciate a little bit more.

Adrian Brown: Like Donna Hall and Wigan, Mayor Feeney quickly learned that action happens when you share power. Like when they decided it was time to reinvent the city's transit system.

Luke Feeney: So the program started out, uh, with essentially us building a team within the city to tackle sort of the question of, of what we could do to make, uh, our system [00:26:00] the best rail transit system in America.

And, uh, from the, from the very beginning, the, the cool thing about the, the project was that the, the team was built from, uh, employees within the city, uh, with different professions, backgrounds, uh, everything from management to frontline workers. So we had a city engineer and we had people in the transit system and we had, um, folks from the utilities department, you know, every level of employee and department engaged in, uh, thinking creatively about our transit system.

It was really fascinating because we came up with ideas that we would've never come up with if it was just the transit people talking to each other, if it was just the engineering department, uh, talking to each other. So that cross-department, um, interaction was, was really invigorating.

Adrian Brown: So what were the outcomes of this collaboration to help reinvent the city's transit system?

Luke Feeney: At the end of the day, we ended up, uh, with a [00:27:00] transit system that is I think pretty unique and particularly for rural communities. We have, we have our fixed routes, but they're more efficient. Uh, we're operating an on-demand system now, which, uh, you could think of it like a, like an Uber or Lyft, uh, but run by a public transportation system where you call in and we come pick you up and take you to where you're going.

And we incorporated a trackless trolley, so we have a downtown trolley now. Um, You know, from visitors or from the community's perspective, uh, kind of serves the purpose of this sort of cute, fun thing to do. But we really thought of the, the trolley as a way to get just the average Chillicothe resident, um, get them to just using public transportation and so now they're using public transportation, uh, and they're riding a, a trolley, but they might think about using our on-demand system, or they might think about using our new, more efficient routes, uh, as a part of their daily life. And so, uh, it was a really thoughtful, uh, invigorating, [00:28:00] sometimes challenging process.

Um, but uh, I think for all of us involved, we just had a lot of fun with it and to see the results. I don't know that I've ever been a part of something in the time that I've been in government that, uh, tackled a problem, tackled a project, and on the back end, uh, the results were so tangible, not to mention in, in such a relatively short period of time.

Adrian Brown: Speaking to the changemakers in this episode and listening to their successes has made it abundantly clear why it's important to challenge the status quo.

From Donna Hall we can learn the importance of questioning hierarchies. Both her work in Wigan and Mayor Feeney’s in Ohio demonstrate the importance of encouraging collaboration within communities rather than setting boundaries and the value of seeking out and building on strengths, while the success of the Finnish Innovation Centre shows us the power of experimentation in governance.

[00:29:00] Every guest on the show has shown us how stepping outside the bounds of a traditional model of governance can produce positive results. They're shaping a new future for government - one that embraces complexity, values relationships, and prioritises learning. Something that we'll desperately need if we want to address the modern issues we are currently facing across the globe.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Reimagining Government, the conversation on the theme of this episode - A new vision for government -continues over on If you're a public servant or government official, we want to hear your examples of how a new vision for government is working in your city or country. How is it being implemented and which actors in government are driving it? Is it succeeding?

Head over to the Apolitical Q&A link in the show notes to this episode, and share your experiences with other public servants from all over the world.

Next time on the podcast, Josh Sorin, Global Director of Climate Action at CPI, will guide us through how [00:30:00] we can reimagine climate action in cities.

Make sure you don't miss an episode by subscribing to Reimagining Government on your favourite podcast platform. Remember also to leave a review to tell us how we're doing. Until next time, I've been Adrian Brown. Goodbye.

🎙️ Reimagining Government

This six-part podcast explores radical new approaches to addressing global issues such as the climate crisis, equitable healthcare provision, and rebuilding trust with marginalised communities.

By speaking with public servants and politicians at the heart of government, we’ll shine a light on how to reimagine government so it works for everyone.


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