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Podcast Article June 20th, 2023

Reimagining Government episode 5: 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] When most people think of government, they tend to think about it at a national level. The elected leaders at the helm of their country and the national policies they campaign on. But government is also the social worker acting in the interest of a vulnerable child.

SFX: I think the biggest challenge that social workers face in completing their daily tasks is just the sheer amount of work they've got to do.

Adrian Brown: The small town mayor, navigating budget cuts;

SFX: Do we just start to cut services like other councils around us are doing, or do we start to try to change the way we work with residents?

Adrian Brown: and the civil servant tasked with shepherding through new climate protocols.

SFX: Ultimately, we have most of the solutions to reduce carbon emissions. We need to find ways to disseminate them, to policymakers and to governments across the world.

Adrian Brown: So far in this podcast, we've introduced you to several of these government changemakers. [00:01:00] Those leading a new era where government thinks systemically, but acts locally and champions the voices of those who are heard the least.

Many examples of this radical new approach can be found at the local level. Local leaders are much closer to the people they serve, enabling a deeper understanding of the challenges faced and possible solutions. But we're also starting to see some of this thinking bubble up to the national level.

So 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.

Reimagining Government is a podcast where we shine a light on changemakers sharing their ideas on how to reimagine a new government equipped to face modern challenges and find real solutions. In this episode, we will explore what it looks like at [00:02:00] a national level with host Thea Snow.

Thea Snow: So many of the concepts that are central to our approach at CPI; complexity, relationships and learning are also core concepts to First Nations people's way of knowing, being, and doing. It is important to acknowledge that and pay our respects to all First Nations peoples across the world, as well as those whose lands I am lucky enough to live on.

My name is Thea Snow and I head the Centre for Public Impact’s work in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. My experience spans the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. I worked as a public servant for almost a decade, and as part of NESTA's government innovation team, an organisation dedicated to strengthening innovation capacity across governments.

Let me introduce you to some of the changemakers around the world who are working at the level of national government to [00:03:00] reimagine what government needs to do and be in order to create the conditions in which everyone can live their best lives.

"It is not the strongest of species that survives nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change." This is a quote from Charles Darwin, a man who knew a thing or two about life's complexities and how we must adapt to overcome them. Generally speaking, how current national government structures and systems were designed at a time when many of the issue that we are facing today didn't exist. How do we expect to tackle today's issues with systems and structures that were designed for a world that looked very different? If national government is to remain relevant and effective, it must be willing to evolve, adapt.

Misha Kaur: It's really interesting to ponder on, on what [00:04:00] national governments are doing wrong or what the models of national governments are are doing wrong.

Thea Snow: Misha Kaur is an innovation specialist at the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation at the OECD. The observatory tracks public sector innovation efforts around the globe to provide a global forum and knowledge hub for shared learning. Misha previously held an assistant commissioner of design position at the Australian Tax Office, where she oversaw a shift to the purpose, vision, and role of the ATO’s design capability.

She's passionate about rethinking the way that governments can work and spearheaded a systems thinking approach to help government understand and respond to the complex challenges we face.

Misha Kaur: The model and the history of governments, they've played a really important role in bettering many outcomes, and so that model has served a purpose in the past.

This isn't how things are today. Governments [00:05:00] recognise that the world is changing, and they recognise that systems are not built as adaptively or with agility. Governments are challenged in how to really make those changes because major transformation is tough because the system is ingrained with legislation, with regulatory frameworks, it's not that easy to adapt a government system that was built a long time ago.

But one of the challenges, I think, is often they did not pivot from traditional operating models. Basically, they had to work against the system in many occasions, not with the system.

Thea Snow: Misha cites one example where she worked with the Australian Capital Territories state government, or ACT, which encompasses the country's capital Canberra. She outlined some of the benefits from taking a systems approach when tackling family violence issues in the state.

Misha Kaur: Having had the privilege of working with the ACT state government in Australia on family violence issues, we took a [00:06:00] systems approach in, in developing a collaboration hub. And we ended up creating this space where we brought different people together to start thinking about how family safety showed up as a system.

Everything from community perception, social norms, uh, how we interact with people with lived experience. Where incidents of family violence can occur, the impacts and all the different types of issues that we needed to, to deal with. It can help governments identify those types of levers within the system that could be used to help change systems.

Sometimes we only consider a new structure, a new rule, a new policy where we may need to adjust things like the paradigms, the social norms, the information flows, even the goal of the system. For example, you can put in a new policy around, you know, driverless cars, clean energy, electric cars, et cetera.

But if you don't change the mental models of people, the way they think about [00:07:00] this and connect this, you won't get the outcomes that you're looking for.

Thea Snow: Given the complexity of the challenges that national governments face, Misha explains why taking a systems approach is vital. Misha Kaur: It's a way of being able for governments to take an active role in convening and coordinating actors, resources, information around big, complex, cross-sectoral, often cross-national issues that cannot be solved by individuals alone.

Thea Snow: While the focus of this conversation is on national government, the role of local and regional government should not be overlooked when it comes to systems change. They are closer to the public, to communities and may have the knowledge of and access to actors that national government are not aware of.

Misha Kaur: They can help national governments, they can help in actually understanding what is important to to citizens, to voters. How to promote uptake. The adoption of policies. Regional and local governments also have certain actual responsibilities that [00:08:00] are mixed in and are core to changing systems. For example, in education, in health and urban planning and cities, waste management, if they're delivering on these services, the value in the knowledge they bring into how to actually create the right policies, how to create decisions, because they have a on the ground knowledge of what's going on.

National governments, I think, need to still consider how they utilise and build ecosystems that include local governments into the decision making. We can't have national strategies that are different or misaligned to local strategies. So how do they work together in terms of creating these visions for the future?

Thea Snow: Experimentation and learning are sometimes considered costly, both in time and resources, but Misha suggests they are worthwhile, proactive ways for possible solutions and policies to be tested before being rolled out nationally.

Misha Kaur: Potentially also ensure that through experimentation, it builds credibility. It builds the right process to allow [00:09:00] uptake from citizens.

It can be set up in a way that can provide evidence to policymakers and decision-makers. To help them have confidence in the decisions that they make. And this is a really important one because evidence-based policymaking is obviously a key topic in today's discourse around policymaking. We see experimentation happen almost outside the policymaking process.

It's almost like when we consult with stakeholders, but it's done right at the end in a way that actually then doesn't allow for things to be iterated. We need to rethink these types of practices. Multidimensional approaches to governance and policymaking that include stakeholders and citizens involving them in the testing so they understand they're part of the process in which policies succeed or fail because they're the ones that are going to be benefiting or being part of the policies.

And it can help to build the trust as well. It can help to build support around decisions that are made because they were part of those decisions.

Thea Snow: Learning is vital for any government, but Misha thinks we also need to make [00:10:00] space to unlearn.

Misha Kaur: What are mental models we've had that we might need to unlearn because they're not useful anymore? What do we need to challenge about our own social norms and the ways and practices we're working

Thea Snow: To enable experimentation, Misha argues that we also need to reimagine funding models and introduce feedback loops that better support learning across government and beyond.

Misha Kaur: Funding models are often not built for iteration, for learning. They're often built for long-term commitments. How do we also think about different types of funding? How do we include stakeholders? How do we think about co-funded sources of experimentation? How do we think about grassroot experiments to occur? Sometimes that competition really helps to figure out what works best.

Another part is around the feedback loops. Often we do experiments. Often things happen, and yet there is no feedback.

Both in the way of a feedback loop around those learnings from those specific experimentations back into the [00:11:00] decision-making process, but as well as cross-learning. So learning in, in, in different ways, learning across the systems, learning from an intra-organisational perspective.

In terms of a final principle or a takeaway I have around, you know, reimagining governments in this world of complexity, it’s this balance between idealism and pragmatism in all forms. Have big goals, yes, inspire with a vision, be ambitious, 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

Thea Snow: As Misha states, national government must be pragmatic in its approach. There will be problems and there is no one size fits all solution. But embracing complexity and making space for experimentation allows government to adapt [00:12:00] and better serve all.

Thea Snow: Over in Scotland, we can see an example of national government putting power and funding back into the areas that need it most. Healthcare Improvement Scotland, or HIS, is the national healthcare improvement organisation of Scotland, and they do pretty much what it says on the tin.

Ruth Glassborow: I'm Ruth Glassborow, director of Improvement at Healthcare Improvement Scotland. Healthcare Improvement Scotland is a national organisation working across health and care services in Scotland, whose mission [00:13:00] is to enable the best possible quality of care for people in Scotland.

Thea Snow: They do this by enabling people to make informed decisions about their care and helping health and social care organisations redesign fractured services.

Ruth Glassborow: So we use a range of approaches to support both health and social care services to improve in Scotland. We are the national evidence organisation for the health system. We have a role around community engagement and public engagement in service change. We do work there to make sure that people who use and need services are absolutely embedded in the work around making service change.

Ruth Glassborow: And then we have the work that sits under the ihub directorate that is about providing practical support across health and care services to support them to both design interventions that will deliver improvements and to implement those changes.

Thea Snow: Healthcare Improvement Scotland's Improvement Hub or ihub is dedicated to supporting those delivering health and social care across Scotland to redesign [00:14:00] and continuously improve services to ensure they meet the changing needs of people.

Ruth Glassborow: The ihub is a directorate within Healthcare Improvement Scotland, and our focus is very much on supporting health and social care services to use evidence-informed approaches to change. So we do that by having a focus on evidence informed approaches to designing changes and then also supporting the system to implement that change.

Part of our ethos, 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.

Thea Snow: As part of its initial response to COVID-19, [00:15:00] the ihub created a national learning system to enable rapid learning across health and social care services in Scotland. This involved bringing together health and social care practitioners to share insights, learning, and best practice around pandemic response initiatives.

Diana Hekerem: Because we've been working with different people in the communities for a while now supporting different kind of improvement and transformation and redesign change, we reached out to people that we had connections with, and said tell us what you're doing. Tell us what you're learning. Tell us what you're finding out. What's working for you and do you know anybody else who's doing good stuff? [00:16:00]

And so we built those relationships, captured those stories, captured the insights, captured what people were noticing was working.

Thea Snow: Diana Hekerem is the Head of Transformational Redesign Support at ihub.

Diana Hekerem: Where there was real success, where there was real trusted relationships between communities and, and the health and social care partnerships that predated COVID, the community was able to innovate so much quicker to be able to respond and adapt so much quicker because the trust was there so the processes didn't get in the way of being able to do that really quick and effective adaptation and delivery. The Highland Hospice up in the north of Scotland and the home care team, you know, developed a shared space around person-centred volunteering for people at end of life to make sure that that palliative care, which was obviously so important during the pandemic was done. But their shared language and their shared understanding of the quality of care enabled them to develop that partnership quite quickly. [00:17:00]

What we saw in that learning and together in that partnership with the communities was a much more sense of these people are vulnerable people and they need help, and that's our shared responsibility and how do we come together to deliver that?

Thea Snow: ihub is a means to learn. So what are some of the things that ihub has learned and how might it be applied by governments working at a national scale?

Ruth Glassborow: 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, a lot of uncertainty, and the pace of change in the world we live in seems to be ever increasing. [00:18:00] So I, I think for me, probably the best example of why it matters is actually COVID itself.

SFX: Cabinet met this morning to assess the up-to-date COVID situation, which I must say at the outset is extremely serious.

Ruth Glassborow: There was no textbook or guidance to tell us what we needed to do as a healthcare system, what we needed to do in education, what we needed to do as a society. And we had to learn both individual city, country, worldwide levels about how to respond and adapt to this new virus. And we saw multiple examples of systems and nations experimenting, observing the impact even around issues such as lockdown.

SFX: We have decided to introduce a legal requirement to stay at home except for essential purposes.

Ruth Glassborow: and then adapting what they were doing in response to that learning and I use that as an analogy because that's our experience for all of the work that we do across health and social care. 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 [00:19:00] what we do, we will end up actually making everything worse. But if we have that focus on constantly assessing what's the impact? What are we learning? What do we need to adapt, then it's that focus that enables us to deliver genuine improvement for the people who need and use services across Scotland.

Thea Snow: ihub shows us that learning and collaboration are key principles when reimagining a better functioning health and social care system for all.

It also shows us that national government needs to act locally, relying on already established relationships. And local knowledge within communities to make long lasting systemic change. [00:20:00]

Ruth Glassborow: We learn an enormous amount from what other people do, and we're certainly not the experts here. It's not about other countries learning from us. It's about how we learn together, and I suppose if there is something that other countries could learn, it would be that a lot of what we do in Scotland is based on that constantly looking to other countries and looking internally to see who is doing something well. And then how might we adapt that into our context, because we don't just take something from somewhere else and just drop it in.

We're so aware that context really, really matters. That importance of constantly scanning to see who is on the front edge of practice, who is doing something, but then that curiosity to understand what is it that's behind their success, and how can we adapt that into our context.

Thea Snow: But as they say themselves, the work at Healthcare Improvement Scotland is not a magic formula [00:21:00] that can fix health and social care on a global stage.

It is a solution that relies heavily on the intimate knowledge of Scotland's public sector. Experimentation and collaboration must be an independent effort as well as a collaborative one for a national government to find the right solutions for their people. And with that, let's leave Scotland behind and travel to another nation who are no stranger to implementing innovative solutions in the public sector.

Thea Snow: Welcome to Finland. We're here to speak to Olli-Pekka Heinonen, who you may remember from the first episode of the series. We spoke to Olli-Pekka about Finland's approach to building humble government, a form of government that encourages humility, diversity of thought and experimentation in order to tackle modern challenges. Finland put this form of government to test in the education sector when the Finnish National Agency for Education introduced the Innovation Centre, an [00:22:00] experimentation and innovation unit that operated from 2017 to 2020.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen: The National Agency for Education and its Innovation Centre is an innovation on itself. That was the tool where we started to experiment what a different approach could be.

Thea Snow: One of the approaches at trial was to set up experimentation labs. Creating spaces for those working across the education system to experiment and co-create solutions to challenges.

But how did these work in practice? I asked Olli-Pekka to find out more. [00:23:00]

Olli-Pekka Heinonen: We brought together some very talented persons with different talent bases to engage themselves with teachers, schools, municipalities, and building that confidence to see that what are the challenges on the local level?

Once the confidence was built, they were there to actually facilitate the process, to solve the problems that people on the local level identified. And that quite often actually meant bringing together not only education professionals, but also social health authorities, kind of local other organisations, parents. And the funny thing was that quite often actually, it was a situation that those people met for the first time together [00:24:00], although they were kind of all in a way, owners of the same problem. So that was what we did as a four year trial to see that could something new be created out of that.

Thea Snow: Part of what made the agency's approach revolutionary was how it sought to redefine the very role of national government rather than taking a top down approach it sought to listen to and work collaboratively with teachers and schools on a local level.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen: We are not trying to kind of tell from the national level that what needs to be done on the local level and then ask schools to be compliant. And actually it was interesting that the first time that the people from the Innovation Centre started calling schools, the answer they got was a very frightened voice that, what have we done wrong? Why are they calling us? [00:25:00] And that kind of told that what the traditional way of working had been earlier. And now it was kind of the question was that how can we help? Do you have something, would need an extra pair of hands? And, and kind of thinking to, to help you solve the challenges that you have.

Thea Snow: While the Innovation Centre has ceased to operate in its current form, the Finnish National Agency for Education continues to encourage experimentation with the support of its innovation and development function.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen: The major key learnings of this project have been that it is an approach that is able to create something that is sustainable. [00:26:00] It's not only solving the challenges on hand at a certain period of time, but it actually creates a learning culture, a learning loop in that educational system where the actors, when they start to know each other, there's the trend of them to start to support each. Once you know what's the things that are missing on the local level, you start understanding that that's something that you need to support. And also on the local level, you start to understand that what's the rationale of the national policymaking? Why is there these kind of values that need to be taken into consideration?

Olli-Pekka Heinonen: And then this interaction starts to function permanently. And, and, and that's a huge thing actually. So in that sense, I think we've been able to solve a lot of kind of local challenges that there have been. [00:27:00] But most importantly, we have been able to create a learning culture inside the education sector.

Thea Snow: Through this approach, the agency demonstrates the power of thinking systemically within national government, whilst encouraging local ownership and putting power into the hands of those best positioned to use it. A national government should be used as the helping hand of its people rather than the iron fist of control.

But how do we ensure a national government works for all, not just the few? We will be touching on that after this short ad break.

Thea Snow: A government's priority should be to serve its people, but human beings are diverse.

SFX: These laws were notoriously discriminatory and the bureaucratic apparatus controlling the reserves maintained vigil.

Thea Snow: [00:29:00] If a national government doesn't provide equal opportunities for all its people without prejudice or discrimination, then it is not fulfilling its role. Only those who have known discrimination truly know it's evil. Luckily, we are now seeing increasing numbers of civil servants who are voicing their concerns around the equitability of government.

One is Jolene Head, Director of Indigenous Procurement Policy at Public Services and Procurement Canada. Jolene has recently completed her Master's research where she focused on the role of executives in deconstructing colonial mindsets and practices in the Canadian public service. I touched base with her to find out what motivated her to focus on this particular topic and what she's learned in her studies.

Jolene Head: Over the course of my career in the public service, I've encountered great leaders, terrible leaders, and everything in between. [00:30:00] I observed a particular leadership culture in the public service, and it was a culture that I really didn't agree with. This peaked my interest in leadership theory and wanting to understand it from an academic perspective rather than a government one.

Thea Snow: Jolene's own experience as both an indigenous person and public servant has shaped her interest in this topic and was something that spurred her to take action.

Jolene Head: Working within the very system that perpetuated the erasure of my culture, and by implementing the Indian Act, the colonial piece of legislation that manages First Nations lives, including mine, I was actively contributing to the ongoing colonisation of First Nations people.

When the Canadian government announced in 2015 its commitment to reconciliation with indigenous peoples, I was optimistic that we would see positive change. [00:31:00] Also, in 2015, I had the opportunity to lead engagement with families and survivors on the design of an inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada and indigenous women are seven times more likely to go missing or be murdered than non-indigenous women.

SFX: Canada, once again, under fire for the federal government's response to chronic problems in indigenous communities. The Native Women's Association of Canada has called the government's performance a failure.

Jolene Head: So I had the privilege of hearing families and survivors share their experiences with the various colonial systems in Canada and the negative impacts of these systems that has led to devalue the lives of indigenous women.

I realised after this experience that I could no longer be a part of the problem, but rather I needed to be a part of the solution.

Thea Snow: In recent years, the Canadian government has taken increased steps to rebuild relationships with indigenous peoples. However, as Jolene suggests, there is still much work to be done to combat the lasting impacts of colonisation.

Jolene Head: [00:32:00] I was offered a position to lead a department's reconciliation efforts. And I felt that this could be an opportunity to influence a large department, an opportunity to help steer at least one department towards understanding the truth of indigenous history and current reality towards deconstructing colonial practices and decolonising thinking and behaviour in this department.

So it was important for me to blend these two topics for my thesis inquiry. The role of public service leaders in supporting reconciliation by deconstructing colonial practices.

Thea Snow: As Jolene explains at the time of her research, not enough was being done to protect indigenous peoples in Canada. Jolene suggests that this was in part due to Canada's rigid government structure, which is based on the UK's Westminster model of governing.

Jolene Head: The Canadian public service operates in a hierarchy and command and control culture, and in the current governance structure is accountable to ministers and not directly to the Canadian public.

[00:33:00] This has led to a distrust of the public service. As well, the Westminster model, and by extension, the public service is mechanistic, linear, and was set up to operate in the known.

As the Canadian public service was modelled after the Westminster model, its command and control culture and hierarchical organisational structure has effectively stifled innovation and creativity. Instead, it maintains the status quo.

It has modelled after one knowledge system and has been operating largely unchanged for 150 plus years, and it has not kept up with evolving society.

In fact, it may actually be contributing to today's wicked problems because it has not evolved to acknowledge other types of democracies, other types of governance structures, other types of knowledge systems, which may be better equipped to address today's challenges. [00:34:00]

Thea Snow: The key findings from Jolene's studies paint a stark picture of the lack of equitable practices she observed as a public servant.

Jolene Head: The training that has been put in place is insufficient, does not go deep enough, and it is not mandatory for all public servants. When I engaged with indigenous employees on my research, many stories were shared with me of experiences of racism, which has resulted in trauma, health issues, lack of advancement, opportunities, the list goes on.

Thea Snow: Jolene notes that historically government policy has actively excluded more diverse communities.

Jolene Head: The impact that government policy has had on generations of indigenous peoples resulting in the loss of culture and language due to the government instituted residential schools where children were not allowed to use their language and communities had indigenous ceremonial practices outlawed. This has led to at least two generations, if not more, of language and culture loss. [00:35:00]

Thea Snow: Jolene also suggests that the political structures and election cycles in place can impede progress towards more equitable government.

Jolene Head: The political arm of government hinders large scale and long-term change in the public service because while the public service is nonpartisan, its funding and priorities are still impacted by the decisions and commitments made by the political party in power.

Generally speaking, the terms are four years in length and as a result of this, political priorities such as reconciliation are at risk during election cycles. However, reconciliation requires long-term commitment and long-term change in the public service.

Thea Snow: While Jolene has made a strong case that out of date governance models, the challenge of political cycles and more, make it difficult for government to pursue large scale and long-term change, [00:36:00] I wanted to know what can a national government in particular do to provide a safer environment for indigenous people and for all?

Jolene Head: In my opinion, the most meaningful way to truly understand the impacts of colonialism is by going into community, 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 deal with.

The lack of knowledge about indigenous people's individual racism, colonial thinking, unconscious biases, et cetera, can lead to perpetuating the status quo and prevent real change from occurring in the system. This is a journey and we won't get to the destination in four years or even ten years. [00:37:00]

Therefore, it needs to be embedded in the public service rather than be at the whim of whatever political party is in power. New leadership theory is, greater transparency, engagement, and accountability to the public. Innovation, creativity, risk taking, and experimentation are essential for addressing today's complex problems.

Complex problems are not linear. The solution is not known, and they are not mechanistic in nature. Yet public servants are expected to find solutions in a system not actually equipped to support them in this. I think it will be an uphill battle to normalise the incorporation of non-western knowledge systems into the Canadian public service and other similar public sectors.

However, I am seeing an upswell of public servants working at the grassroots level to enact change. These public servants are curious, motivated, and are demanding a more equitable public service. And a truly equitable and inclusive public service must include other knowledge systems.

Thea Snow: Jolene believes part of the solution lies in raising awareness and understanding of these non-Western knowledge systems amongst public servants. [00:38:00]

Jolene Head: In Canada, indigenous knowledge is collective and holistic. It is about distributed leadership and focuses on relationships. Relationships with other people, with the flora and fauna, with the earth, with the ancestors and future generations. It is through the education of public servants on non-western knowledges, such as indigenous knowledges that will bring about normalising their use in the public service, and I hope will lead to transformational change and that deconstructing the colonial and patriarchal system that is currently in place.

SFX: Saying sorry for the tragedies of the past is not enough. Only with our actions can we choose a better path, and that is what our government will always try to do.

Thea Snow: [00:39:00] The challenges we face today are as varied and nuanced as we are as people. Finding bolt on solutions will only take us so far and only delay the inevitable need for change. So what does this change look like?

What comes next and how do we look forward at what might be, rather than just backwards at what hasn't been working well? To explore some of these questions, I reached out to Aaron Maniam, a Singaporean civil servant and futurist.

Aaron Maniam: Hi there, my name is Aaron Maniam.

Thea Snow: He has served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Centre for Strategic Futures, Civil Service College, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry. His current role is Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of Communications and Information. Aaron spends a lot of time thinking about digital society.

Aaron Maniam: 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 and more efficient.

[00:40:00] I think a lot about digital society as well, and there my job is to think about how individual citizens can play most meaningfully and most richly in the growing digital space out there, given all the opportunities that it affords.

This means thinking about what government needs to subsidise in terms of digital technology, what we can leave to the market, and what skills we need to help different people in society acquire so that they can participate as richly and meaningfully in the digital space.

Thirdly, I think a lot about international partnerships, the kinds of opportunities that exist when we and other countries who are also digitally inclined, might undertake cooperation or collaborative projects.

Thea Snow: The Ministry of Communications and Information has several exciting initiatives to help keep pace with change, centring on the economy, society, regulation, and security, all within the digital space.

Aaron Maniam: [00:41:00] We have teams that are looking at 5G infrastructure. Do we have the right infrastructure? Are we rolling out the infrastructure, especially for our standalone networks according to the right timeline? We also wanna make sure that there are use cases for this 5G that is, the infrastructure is not just there, but that it's being used to generate economic as well as consumer value.

And we want to find basically as many use cases as possible that create concrete benefits out of the use of 5G.

Thea Snow: Many governments around the world are increasingly looking at the potential of AI and how it can be used to improve public services, and Singapore is no exception. Aaron shares more about how the Singapore government is approaching this.

Aaron Maniam: Similarly, we have a strategy for AI. How we adopt artificial intelligence and how we ensure that we don't just regulate it well. We have good regulatory practices, I think, but we want to make sure those regulatory practices lead to genuine and meaningful and valuable use cases for citizens. This has meant, again, right, bringing AI to a range of use cases. [00:42:00]

Here the examples include healthcare, where we've used AI for retinopathy to make sure that, you know, we can do, um, retinal scans with much more precision. We've used it in education where we are trying to create bots and other, um, learning devices that allow for learning to become more interesting, more fun, but also more scalable.

I wanted to mention one other really important initiative, which is something we call the Digital for Life movement, and this is really an effort to ensure that as all of us are trying to be digital for life in all aspects of our lives, we are able to bring on board as many community partners as possible because government can't operate by itself.

And in this case, we need to bring in as many community partners, businesses as well as like-minded citizen organisations who are interested in ensuring that the benefits of digital reach as wider range of, uh, constituents as possible.

Thea Snow: Complexity is not an easy thing to define. And you get different answers depending on who you ask. Economist Eric Beinhocker defines a complex system as many dynamically interacting parts or particles where the micro-level interactions lead to the emergence of macro-level patterns of behaviour. [00:43:00]

While indigenous scholars Blaze and Ambelin Kwaymullina talk about complexity being a holistic view in which everything is interrelated and interdependent. Whatever definition you choose to adopt, Aaron feels the concept of complexity is highly relevant to the challenges national government faces in the future.

Aaron Maniam: Whether it's in the geopolitical aspects of the world, or identity politics and culture wars, we're dealing with situations where we don't quite know what cause is going to lead to what effect in a, in a stable and clear way. As a result, governments are not going to be able to do everything anymore.

Governments are going to continue to have to, you know, exercise authority. [00:44:00] They're going to, to administer taxes, to provide public order and safety, uh, you know, through things like defence and, and internal security. But they are not going to be able to act as sole or even dominant agents if governments don't actually have all the information that they need, where, like a control tower, they can tell people, fly here, don't fly here, land now hover for a while in, in airspace we don't have that, that kind of monopoly of information anymore. What I think we need to have is government as a platform, right? Governments are increasingly platforms that allow for the interlinkage of functions.

They bring together different, uh, roles and different possibilities and sets of resources in order to do this. That's what leads us to this third trend, really, which is that governments are going to have to do a lot more partnership work rather than trying to do everything themselves. Government has to convene, government has to bring partners together, government has to facilitate to aggregate, to synthesise. But we don't necessarily need government to be doing everything, um, on its own.

[00:45:00] This is partly why in Singapore we have had many efforts where we, we emphasise the togetherness of government, right? Government working together with citizens. Uh, we've had a process which we called Emerging Stronger Together, which was all about coming through the pandemic and making sure that we, we built on existing strengths, but really came together as government, businesses and communities to cross pollinate our strength with one another.

Thea Snow: Given the complexity of issues facing national government, Aaron argues that technology not only enables collaboration, it necessitates it.

Aaron Maniam: How do you deal with scams? Financial scams, especially. Government has a role. But telcos have a role too because you know, very often these scams spread through our phones and banks have a role to play in financial scams because they need to set in place the right rules to ensure that, you know, two-factor authentication and other forms of security-enabling, uh, devices are actually used. So we need, I think, to, to use technology because it necessitates that, that that level of collaboration. [00:46:00]

Thea Snow: As well as Digital for Life, the national government in Singapore has several collaborative processes between business and community groups to tackle complex problems they cannot address by themselves.

An ever pervasive issue is online safety, particularly for young people and women. Aaron was involved in Sunlight Alliance for Action. A collaboration seeking to address this.

Aaron Maniam: Similarly, I mentioned things like online harm, right? I mean the, the EU Digital Services Act, some of the material on online safety in the UK, what the Australians and Canadians are doing in the online safety space.

Singapore's just put out some new codes in our legislation for online safety. All of that requires collaboration with big tech. It requires collaboration with different companies who might be recipients of these sources of information. It requires collaboration with parents and with other adults in family life.

Thea Snow: So who are the key players government should collaborate with when creating a safe online space.

Aaron Maniam: [00:47:00] Businesses, because they often have the best ideas and are agile and have experimented with new solutions. Communities because they fundamentally will care about people. And they're often the ones, most invested, they know what's happening on the ground, so we need them.

We need individual citizens because sometimes it's all about people taking care of their own safety and the safety of their families in the online space. And if all of us do that, then we add up, I think to a much more healthy, much more resilient system. But we need to collaborate internationally as well.

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 can all talk to each other and allow us to be much more informed in the decisions that we, we are making. So we wanted to address issues whereby, you know, you might have issues around grooming, you know, or, or dangerous practices, illicit use of intimate photographs.

[00:48:00] And, and we brought a whole bunch of different entities together in this process. All the big tech firms in Singapore were there. We had a number of SMEs who were involved. We, we brought in our libraries. We brought in many of our universities as well as our polytechnics in schools so that we would have the perspective of educators.

We also brought parents in so that we understood what their needs were in terms of protecting their children, and, and the idea there was to diagnose the problem together, but then equally critically to come up with solutions together. And I do think that when this is done well, right, 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.

Thea Snow: So what does the future of national government look like to Aaron?

Aaron Maniam: Think of three roles in particular. Government has to be a steward first of all. It has to know that the work it is doing is not work that it can control all the time, but it has to hold that work in trust to ensure that whatever happens in five, ten, fifteen years time is better for a population than it is today, right? That's what stewardship fundamentally is. [00:49:00]

But in order to achieve that stewardship, government cannot act by itself. It has to act in tandem with others, and that means being a partner. And sometimes government has to also work with others to resolve or at least mitigate and manage conflict. And in this case, government has to be a facilitator.

It has to be able to host discussions, pose the right questions, and allow for a generative approach to the different policy challenges that we, we might be facing.

Thea Snow: In addition to being a civil servant, Aaron is also a poet, which explains why when talking about his vision for the future of government, he quotes from a fellow writer. One known for his work in science fiction, no less, Alasdair Gray: “work as if we live in the early days of a better nation”.

Adrian Brown: [00:50:00] A national government cannot succeed by simply ruling from above. It must lean on local governments to better understand the needs of the people and collaborate with them in order to find solutions. It must foster experimentation between local government and communities. Take notice of successes and amplify them across boundaries and at a scale that local government cannot reach.

National government is a megaphone for those working on the ground and should be used to amplify the voices of those who are heard the least. Whilst national government doesn't have the luxury of working with communities at the micro-level, there are advantages from a macro viewpoint. It is the role of a national government to see the bigger picture, but to do that it must seek out strengths within communities, practice humility, and optimise for learning. In doing so, it will better serve its people, each and every one of them. [00:51:00]

Thanks for listening to this episode of Reimagining Government. The conversation on the theme of this episode, reimagining national government continues over on

If you're a public servant or government official, we want to hear from you. How can national governments ensure decisions are made in the best interests of those they govern? Which other stakeholders should be consulted to influence decision-making at the national level? 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.

In the next episode, we begin to reimagine what government looks like internationally with Smita Jha, Head of the Centre for Public Impact in India. 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

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.


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