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Podcast Article February 15th, 2023
Delivery • Innovation • Justice

Reimagining Government episode 5: National government 2.0

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🎙️ The 5th episode of #ReimaginingGovernment by @CPI_foundation & @Apoliticalco is live! Listen to how @MishaTKaur @ruth_glassborow @hekermum @Heino1Olli @jchead @aaronmaniam are rethinking govt at national level.

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🤔 How can national governments adapt to modern challenges and share power? Listen to ep.5 of #ReimaginingGovernment by @CPI_foundation & @Apoliticalco to hear from changemakers who are spearheading efforts around the world 🌏

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"The most meaningful way to understand the impacts of colonialism is by going into communities, 🗣️ speaking to community elders, leaders, and members, and 👀 witnessing the conditions and challenges that are faced every day." @jchead on equity in Canada.

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🎙️ 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.

Listen to the fifth episode

In the fifth episode of the ‘Reimagining Government’ podcast, Thea Snow, Director at the Centre for Public Impact in Australia and New Zealand, speaks with changemakers working to reimagine more adaptable, equitable, and collaborative national government.

“What could it mean for national leaders to share power with those best placed to act? What if they let go of their need to control outcomes and instead optimise for learning and adaptation at every level? It's not as counterintuitive as it may seem.” - Thea Snow

Their discussion points have been broken down into the following:

00:00 - 03:57 - Introduction

03:58 - 12:24 - Adaptable governments, thinking systemically, and antifragility

12:25 - 22:02 - Improving health and social care across Scotland

22:03 - 29:33 - Collaborative government and innovating education in Finland

29:34 - 39:03 - Making government more equitable in Canada

39:04 - 49:59 - Government as a platform and the integration of digital society in Singapore

50:00 - 52:04 - Conclusion

Adaptable governments, thinking systemically, and antifragility

Misha Kaur is an Innovation Specialist at the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation at OECD. She argues that the rigidity of current government systems leaves them poorly positioned to adapt to today's challenges. To navigate these effectively, government must take a more systemic approach.

“Governing systems are also examples of complex social systems, and so I think systems approaches can also be very much used when governments are considering their own approaches for internal or structural reform. It can help governments think deeply [and] engage with the systems at play, whether that's around their health system, the education system, the justice system, climate change, or the interactions even between these systems.” - Misha Kaur

By thinking systemically, governments can better identify the most important people to engage with and the levers that could be used to help change systems. This ground-up approach gives a fresh opportunity to consider who would be most effective in tackling current issues, whose perspectives will prove most beneficial, and who can make the right decisions.

Misha employed a systemic approach when working with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) state government to address issues of family violence. This included developing a collaboration hub to help ACT think about this issue more holistically.

“We ended up creating this space where we brought different people together to start thinking about how family safety showed up as a system.” - Misha Kaur

This is just one example of how a systemic approach can work, but for government to enact effective change on a national level, it must commit to system change on a larger scale.

Misha argues that embracing ‘antifragility’ - a concept developed by essayist and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb - could make governments more adaptable to future challenges. Antifragility posits that, unlike risk, you can measure fragility as the quality of being disproportionately harmed by large events over small events that occur in a system. Taleb defines antifragility as something that benefits from disruption and thrives in volatility.

Given the complexity of the challenges that governments are working to address, we can’t predict fully what will happen when action is taken or try to oversimply. Embracing antifragility can help governments embrace change and recognise that no one approach is a silver bullet.

Local government also has a vital role to play in stewarding systems change. As Misha describes it, “National governments need to still consider how they utilise and build ecosystems that include local governments into the decision making, and as such, national and local governments need to work together.”

By being closer to the public, local government can inform the national level of realities they need to be aware of and help communities adopt new policies. As their roles are complementary, it is essential that their visions remain aligned.

Misha also argues that experimentation is key for national government. Testing new policies or initiatives before a full rollout can help circumvent future risks and costs. Furthermore, it provides an opportunity to incorporate stakeholders and citizens early in the process, helping foster trust.

Ultimately, governments must be willing to challenge existing systems when faced with the complexities of modern issues.

“Have big goals. Yes, inspire with a vision. Be ambitious. These things are needed, but also be pragmatic because systems are not perfect. They don't work like a model. They're filled with humans, with biases, with mental models, with imperfections, a level of pragmatism is required for us to actually enact change.” - Misha Kaur

Improving health and social care across Scotland

Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS) is an example of national government investing power and funding in areas that need it most.

HIS is responsible for improving healthcare systems across Scotland, from its bustling cities to its quieter highlands. Director of Improvement at HIS, Ruth Glassborow, describes the organisation's mission as providing the best quality of care for people in Scotland.

HIS serves as a support system for other health and social care organisations. It acts as the national evidence organisation for the health system and the national assurance organisation for the NHS, regulating independent healthcare. In these roles, HIS assesses new technologies, creates new clinical guidelines, embeds best practices, and ensures that those needing the systems are actively consulted.

One part of HIS is Scotland’s Improvement Hub (iHub) - a branch dedicated to supporting those delivering health and social care to redesign and continuously improve services to ensure they meet people’s changing needs. As Ruth describes it, “we do that by having a focus on evidence-informed approaches to designing changes, and then also supporting the system to implement that change. [...] Our underpinning ethos here is how do we really help systems to both redesign so that we deliver what people need when they need it in the right way for them, but also to leave the services with the ability to keep doing the work of continuous improvement.”

An example of this in action is HIS’ learning network, established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In creating this network in the early days of the outbreak, iHub brought together practitioners to share insights, practices, and solutions.

The success of this network was enabled by its foundation of established relationships. Head of Transformational Redesign Support at iHub, Diana Hekerem, notes that this trust allowed for effective iterations of solutions, which enabled an accelerated rate of learning.

“Learning is really central to our work because we are trying to help services to bring about change in a context where there is a lot of complexity. [...] It's a complex system and we can make a change in one bit of it, and there can be all sorts of unintended consequences in another bit of it. So unless we have learning at the heart of what we do, we will end up actually making everything worse.” - Ruth Glassborow

Glassborow suggests that by adopting an inquisitive ethos, HIS can adapt to the unique challenges faced in Scotland. Examining the effectiveness of solutions elsewhere while constantly iterating its own practices helps maintain what works and improve what doesn’t.

A large factor in iHub’s success is its intimate knowledge of Scotland’s public sector, but what about nations where this is not the case? How else might experimentation and collaboration from a national government manifest for its people?

Collaborative government and innovating education in Finland

Successful collaboration requires listening to all parties and taking on board their perspectives. In the case of Finland’s education system, national government listened to education professionals working on the ground to identify the problems they faced and how to tackle them.

The Finnish National Agency for Education introduced the Innovation Centre, which ran from 2017 to 2020. Former Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education, Olli-Pekka Heinonen, explains that the Innovation Centre brought together a range of people, each with a relationship to the education sector.

“That [...]  meant bringing together not only education professionals, but also social health authorities, local organisations, parents, and the funny thing was that quite often actually, it was a situation that those people met for the first time together, although they were kind of all in a way, owners of the same problem.” - Olli-Pekka Heinonen

This four year trial sought to redefine the government-community dynamic. By listening to and working alongside teachers at the local level, national government put power into the hands of those best positioned to use it. In doing this, the Innovation Centre demonstrated how thinking systemically but acting locally can make for better government.

As Olli-Pekka mentions, this change is most impactful when sustainable. The Innovation Centre showed it was possible to foster a learning culture that encouraged deeper comprehension from both sides. National government came to learn what support the schools needed, and the local level understood the rationale of policymaking and the values considered.

Making government more equitable in Canada

Around the world, factors such as discrimination and prejudice have led to inequitable governments and an erosion of public trust.

Director of Indigenous Procurement Policy at Public Services and Procurement Canada, Jolene Head, recently finished her Master’s focusing on the role of executives in deconstructing colonial mindsets in Canada’s public service.

As both an indigenous Canadian and a public servant, Jolene witnessed the longstanding effects of a country built on colonisation and wanted to do something about it.

With Canada’s government structure based on the UK’s Westminster model, Jolene explained where distrust has taken root. “The Canadian Public Service operates in a hierarchy and command and control culture, and the current governance structure is accountable to ministers and not directly to the Canadian public.”

This rigid model has made it difficult to keep up with evolving challenges and pursue large-scale change.

In addition, Jolene notes that historically, the Canadian government has actively excluded Indigenous communities. For instance, government instituted residential schools banned Indigenous languages and ceremonies, resulting in generations of significant cultural loss.

“In my opinion, the most meaningful way to truly understand the impacts of colonialism is by going into communities, spending time, speaking to community elders, leaders, and members, and witnessing the conditions and challenges that are faced every day that the majority of Canadians never have to.”

To meaningfully advance equity and provide a safer environment for Indigenous people in Canada, the state must explore solutions outside of its existing models. And, by raising awareness and understanding of non-western knowledge systems among public servants, such as that of the Indigenous community, Canada may be able to right some of its historical wrongs.

Government as a platform and the integration of digital society in Singapore

Aaron Maniam is the Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Communication and Information in Singapore. He is also a self-confessed futurist with a passion for the integration of ‘digital society’.

“My specific areas of responsibility are to think about how we can grow the digital economy, how we grow the specific aspects of the digital sector, but also how digital tech can be used in all aspects of the economy in order to transform our businesses to be more productive and more efficient.” - Aaron Maniam

Like many governments across the world, Singapore is exploring how AI can be used to enhance public services, while also remaining responsibly regulated. “The examples include healthcare, where we've used AI for retinopathy to make sure that we can do retinal scans with much more precision. We've used it in education where we are trying to create bots and other learning devices that allow for learning to become more interesting, more fun, but also more scalable.”

Aaron also highlighted Singapore’s Digital for Life Movement, which supports the implementation of technology into everyday life. The initiative incorporates community partners, businesses, and citizen organisations that support each other to build a digitally inclusive society for Singapore.

The shared responsibility of the Digital for Life Movement is just one example of what Aaron sees as a larger need for governments to collaborate alongside partners.

“Governments are going to continue to have to exercise authority. They're going to administer taxes, to provide public order and safety  [...] but they are not going to be able to act as sole or even dominant agents. Governments don't actually have all the information that they need, like a control tower [that] can tell people, fly here, don't fly here, land now, hover for a while [...]. We don't have that kind of monopoly of information.” - Aaron Maniam

Aaron argues that the complexity of modern societies requires government to act as a platform and facilitator that connects different systems and works together with citizens.

This philosophy has manifested in Singapore’s ‘Emerging Stronger Together’, which brought together government, businesses, and communities to build on each other’s strengths when emerging from the pandemic.

In another example, the Singapore government collaborated with partners in the financial, technological, and familial spaces in the interests of cyber security. New codes in Singapore's online safety legislation require collaboration with big tech and other companies that are privy to sensitive information. Likewise, it requires parents and caregivers to ensure that children are aware of what they can do to stay safe online.

But international collaboration is also crucial. “We need better cross-border data flows. We need harmonisation of rules where possible, or at least we want our systems to be interoperable so that our data and our AI and our cyber labelling cannot talk to each other and allow us to be much more informed in the decisions that we are making.”

One example of multi-level implementation is Sunlight Alliance for Action, a collaboration Aaron was involved with, that seeks to address the issue of illicit uses of intimate photographs. The movement incorporated big tech firms based in Singapore, SMEs, libraries, schools, universities, and parents, so that all relevant perspectives could be brought into finding solutions.

“I do think that when this is done well, if these discussions are well facilitated, then actually we end up with really rich outcomes, which are far more refined, far more encompassing, and far more nuanced than if any sector had tried to deal with them alone.” - Aaron Maniam


A successful national government collaborates with those working on the local level to better understand the needs of people and encourage action. It fosters experimentation between local government and communities, taking notice of successes and amplifying them across boundaries at a scale that local government cannot reach.

This level of government is responsible for shaping a unified guiding vision for its nation, informed by its communities and the opinions it must be humble enough to consider. In doing this, national governments can ensure a brighter and better tomorrow for all.

🎙️ 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.

Listen to the fifth episode

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