🎙️ 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: Throughout this series, we've been shining a light on public servants doing their part to turn the tide and reimagine a government better suited for modern society. However, many of these stories have focused on the Global North. To genuinely drive a fundamental change in modern governance, it is essential to adopt a global perspective, be contextually responsive, agile, and prioritise the needs of local communities.
News Report: This week African countries told the United Nations gathering how poor infrastructure networks, unaffordable financing and increasing violence are huge stumbling blocks.
News Report: India will be India, which is that it's a complicated story. There are many nuances out here.
News Report: China, India, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia, all seeing rising temperatures, it's warned that the heat will hit the poor the hardest, especially those without access to cooling [00:01:00] or adequate shelter.
Adrian Brown: What might it look like to reimagine governance in global development, where the Global South and Global North converge, and what might we learn from the similarities or differences across contexts? Is it possible to reimagine practices and shift power dynamics in global development? As we've already learned in this series, context is an important catalyst when considering what governance is needed in a particular geography or community.
How can we design for that at a global scale? And above all, can it be done?
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 our sixth episode, Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson [00:02:00] and Javiera Godoy guide us through the pressing issues and nuances we face when reimagining governments at a global scale, and zoom into current explorations in India and Kenya working to make this happen.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Greetings. I’m Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson.
Javiera Godoy: And I’m Javiera Godoy.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: We work in the Global Development Initiative team at CPI.
The Global Development sector brings together Global North Governments, Global South Governments, International NGOs, Financing Institutions, Foundations, Civil Society, Innovators and more.
In this context, CPI set up our Global Development Initiative. We work both upstream and downstream in the Global Development sector to explore development practice that is more adaptive to respond to rapidly changing contexts and increasingly complex issues.
Javiera Godoy: Acknowledging that language is constantly evolving, we want to state [00:03:00] that CPI’s Global Development Initiative is part of a collective effort to move away from power dynamics, which is also reflected in language. We're currently seeking the most appropriate terminology to refer to our field and working to move away from concepts such as Global North and Global South.
If you hear us use these terms and feel affected, we want to assure you that we're committed to finding a language that is representative, inclusive and restorative. Please bear with us and reach out if you have suggestions. We believe this is a collective effort that involves us all.
With this in mind, let's explore what it might look like to challenge power dynamics, embrace complexity, include a more diverse range of voices in the conversation, and discuss how these lessons can inform similar efforts in reimagining global development.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: [00:04:00] It would be remiss of us to attempt to capture the complexity of development contexts without focusing on a few countries where development practice takes place, to start unpacking both the ingenuity and continued development challenges in these contexts.
Solutions cannot simply be transplanted from one country to another. Instead, they must be addressed through locally owned solutions, founded on the knowledge and experience of those working on the ground, who best understand the nuanced contexts, cultures and circumstances. We should not presume to know the best answers to these questions, but rather seek ways to engage with and support existing conversations.
What lessons can we learn from the practitioners on the ground to ensure government and people are working together effectively? How might we shift power dynamics in this space?
Javiera Godoy: This is something that Julie Mwabe thinks about often.
Julie Mwabe: The thing I-I would like to continue pushing for [00:05:00] is the multi-sectoral approach. How do we get different sectors to work together so that if it's education, it's not just an education thing, if it's a gender, it's not just Ministry of Gender, but then looking at children at your core and at your centre, so that you are able to look at them in their totality. Are they fed, are they safe? And if you're able to look at learners and children and communities just as, as they are, as humans rather than as sectors, I think we can go further.
Javiera Godoy: Julie is a Team Lead in Global Advocacy at Global Partnership for Education.
Julie Mwabe: Our role mostly being on highlighting education in the public policy spaces and building political will around education.
Javiera Godoy: She has spent many years working to advance the education of women and girls in Kenya, previously holding the position of Gender Advisor to the Executive Office of the President of Kenya.
Julie Mwabe: One of the focus areas I focused on was on adolescent girls. Women and girls [00:06:00] consistently and historically have too often just, you know, have left behind. But I mean, I am an African woman, my grandmother, my mother, my aunties, there's always like, “let's feed the family, let's do everything, and I will be the last” you know.
I have seen over and over again how the women are the ones who will not have the food as long as their family is fed, you know? A lot of the time they don't have the income, right? Because they're looking at their families, so they don't have sort of those decision-making tools. But they, at the same time, are the gateway of society and development, you know. When you empower a woman, you empower her community. When you think about Wangari Maathai.
Javiera Godoy: Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan political activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organisation focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights.
Wangari Maathai: [00:07:00] As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the whole world.
Julie Mwabe: For her, the Green Belt Movement, you know, it was her about asking other women, you know, when you cut a tree, you plant two. And that was just a movement of women who came together and just the story of how women, when they come together, things happen.
Wangari Maathai: Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. So together we planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter and income to support the childrens, and education and household needs.
Julie Mwabe: If you're trying to end gender-based violence, if it's malnutrition, they are the ones who have their say. And a lot of the times women are seen as victims, rather than champions. But then when we have that mindset that the champion, they're the ones we sort of need to work with to get our messaging across [00:08:00], I think that's one way toward sustainability.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Like local and national government, it is easy to think of global development from a top-down perspective. Here, Julie explains why this isn't the most sustainable approach, as it reproduces many of the current issues in the development space. Global development plans should always start with the people affected. Not just being considered, but being placed at the centre of decision-making processes.
Julie Mwabe: Just like a game, a football game, or a basketball game, or any game for that matter, there's always the home game and the away game, right? When you are home, you have an audience who know you, who cheer you the loudest. You are comfortable, you know the weather, you know the turf, you have a confidence and an upbeat towards it.
When you're away, it's unfamiliar sometimes. Sometimes there’s boos around it, you know, sometimes you're edgy and, and you see it in, in football. They play better at home than you do away. And it’s the same thing. [00:09:00] When you are planning your big meetings or your convenings, bring it closer to those on the ground. Allow them to participate.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Ensuring a community's voice is heard on a topic that concerns them is fundamental. How can we amplify those voices on a global stage?
Julie Mwabe: Oftentimes we will speak to ourselves. You get other development practitioners, you get those who already have passports, who've travelled, who've been speaking on this panel, speak, you know, your language, the way you want it. And so I think we miss a very important opportunity to be able to hear and be proactive in being inclusive when it comes to development.
I'm not saying stop the bigger meetings, the bigger convenings, but then what can be done in those regions? You know what can be done that you go to their home turf, in their comfort zone, hear their stories, hear their way of working, highlight their solutions and tap into that.
That's one thing I'd like to see more, allowing the communities we work for and with [00:10:00] to be decision-makers, to have a voice, and for us to create that for them, that they're able to contribute to the discussions, the dialogue and the way forward.
Javiera Godoy: It is important to share power with local communities. However, as Julie explains, acknowledging the nuances of different countries, cultures and government systems and building on their unique strengths is also vital.
Julie Mwabe: I mean, governments are different, you know, there's no one size fits all. I um, nuances of the Kenyan government, but it's different from the Somali government, it's different from a Nepali, but our governments do have the convening power. They have a way of, you know, citizens listen to them. Sometimes a mistake we make is because something has worked with one government, you are like, we are going to replicate it across.
Javiera Godoy: While there are a range of vast and complex challenges facing countries in the Global South, Julie is hopeful about the future and believes there are many important lessons that other countries can learn from them. [00:11:00]
Julie Mwabe: Global South countries face enormous challenges, whether it's funding, you know, uh, tied to fiscal spaces. Whether it is climate change, for example, the impact being more, you know, in the Global South. But despite that, Africa is rising, you know, there is so much promise. There are a lot of women and men who are really coming in and working governments and wanting to change their countries. More children are now in school than they were 20 years ago. The children are healthier, more women are working and because they're working and they're earning an income, they're able to make better decisions for themselves, for their families. They're able to make decisions on how many children they would like to have and plan for them, right?
I have seen it between my generation and my mother's generation and my grandmother's generation, just being able to have an education and, uh, work overseas [00:12:00] is not something that my mother did do, and definitely not my grandmother. Tables are turning, where a lot of people in the Global South are being at the forefront of championing agendas.
So many things that are yet even, you know, other countries in the West to catch up on, right. Kenya, for example, you know, the digital, the mobile phone penetration is so high. Your grandmother in the village is able to make payments on the phone. And so those kind of stories and how do we highlight those? How do we bring them to the platforms and let them be lessons learned for other countries as well, so that they too are adding to the discourse of “this is where things can go and the possibilities” and that, from the West, you're able to see their aspirations and meet them at where they aspire to be.
We just have to listen to those in the Global South. We have to give them more decision-making opportunities, speak less for them, you know, but allow them to speak for themselves, provide them the platforms. How do we work together [00:13:00] and learn and glean off each other towards common agendas, so that we are also stepping away from what we know and across sectors to move the agenda forward?
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: How we think about and learn from development contexts must shift to bring about sustainable change. We must ensure the voices of people and contexts of each region are amplified and at the centre of any actions taken. We must think systemically and act locally, shifting the power to enable local communities to be the decision-makers.
Javiera Godoy: As we've heard from Julie, it takes collaboration with different sectors and communities to reimagine global development from her perspective in Kenya.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: And, as she mentioned, there are already many examples from the Global South where people are doing things differently and are at the forefront of change. What can we learn from these, and where else do we see examples of innovation advancing development efforts at a global scale?
Javiera Godoy: [00:14:00] Innovation is essential to reimagining global development. Only by innovating, by testing and adapting new approaches, can we adequately respond to the constantly evolving and complex challenges faced by global development.
Giulio Quaggiotto: Hi, my name is Giulio and until recently I was the Head of Innovation for UNDP, the United Nations Development Programme.
Javiera Godoy: Giulio Quaggiotto is a development and public sector innovation expert. He has worked with various multilaterals, governments and institutions, holding a range of different roles, including Honorary Research Fellow at UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: So what exactly do we mean when we talk about innovation in global development?
Giulio Quaggiotto: Innovation is about ideas that are being implemented, uh, and ultimately deliver value. It's a deceivingly simple definition. On one hand, [00:15:00] it, it emphasises that innovation is not just about having ideas, but it's actually about implementing them. But where it gets really complex and difficult and ultimately political is in the last part.
When you say where actually innovation delivers value, because this is the question, what is value? Particularly what is public value if you're doing this, whether in government or in the development sector. And most importantly, it uh, raises the question who defines what is value?
There was a first enthusiastic wave of adoption of innovations, that was basically very much focused on taking approaches coming from a variety of disciplines like design thinking, big data, etc. I think increasingly the feeling is that this has not been enough. It was, this has just been marginal tweaks in the context of an overall project that was designed, and it was a project that was largely designed by the flow of money and expertise from the North [00:16:00] to the South. And maybe money flows easily, but power does not.
And so there is an increasing realisation if you're talking about, really innovation in development and in the development sector, you're not talking about adopting new shiny tools or establishing labs, but it's actually you are talking about redesigning fundamentally, uh, a system that was designed for a different era, for a different purpose and is not anymore in line with the challenges that are facing us.
Javiera Godoy: Giulio heeds the warning that if we are to innovate in global development successfully, we must understand where we are right now. It is important that we harness the tools that are already available rather than trying to invent new solutions that are yet to be constructed.
Giulio Quaggiotto: The development sector is still struggling to acknowledge and recognise that things that are happening already, driven locally by local needs and local expertise, actually are more worthwhile [00:17:00] to support, often time than completely new initiatives coming from the outside.
What we are trying to do at UNDP is, um, raise almost single-mindedly a question of coherence. By which I mean, are the tools, initiatives, instruments that we are bringing to, uh, development challenges, coherent with the nature of a challenge itself? And if you think about it, obviously these challenges typically are deeply systemic, uh, have to do with structural inequalities. They require a long-term perspective. They require what is called a ‘slow lane’, meaning a take, uh, a long burn approach, right? You won't fix it overnight. And unfortunately, the instruments that development organisations, uh, like UNDP have are typically projects. And projects are, if you're lucky, two to three to five years, have funding that is, uh, mostly focused on [00:18:00] single-point solutions rather than systemic challenges, and often driven donors and interests from outside the affected communities.
If you really want to say, okay, I want to address this particular issue in a systemic way, and with tools and approaches that are coherent with it, you're talking about the fundamental rewiring of the organisation.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Rewiring systems from the foundation is the only way to ensure antiquated systems of governance are made adaptable to modern issues. But where should the rewiring start?
Giulio Quaggiotto: A big role for innovation is actually to ask the question, “how do we build organisational will to transform?” So it's not enough to say, okay, I try to do things differently you need to be able to say, “so what?” Who is going to take different decisions from tomorrow that follow a logic that is more coherent to do this? And this is obviously scary because it means really challenging established practices, for some of them that have been around for decades [00:19:00]; it means challenging your role and your agency. It means you're not seeing yourself anymore as the external expert with superior expertise and knowledge. You see yourself as part of a problem, as well as part of a solution. Embracing this humility and also this tolerance for uncertainty is really something that, uh, speaks to, to, you know, how do you create that organisational will to transform?
So you need to focus an awful lot on decisions and changing patterns of decision-making.
Javiera Godoy: With innovation comes the desire to be seen as a trailblazer, a forward-thinker. Giulio sees this approach as a common pitfall in innovation when it comes to global development – a hindrance that can restrict truly innovative practices from taking shape.
Giulio Quaggiotto: You join an innovation unit because you want to, to be the cool rebel, right? So you have things that go against the established system. You bring your flashy tools and you bring your type of new approaches that challenge, and in a sense, your, your whole identity is predicated on [00:20:00] being the one who challenges the system to try to actually, uh, do things that are strange, innovative things, are not heard before with a certain element of coolness to the whole thing.
If you take this more, what we would've ended up calling systemic or strategic approach to innovation, you actually need to bring the system with you, which means you need to be the most helpful person in the room.
You need to bring different parts of a house together with you and partners and donors. This is actually being able to understand the personalities, agendas, etc., and actually being able to work in a very different space to be really an effective ecosystem facilitator and orchestrator. There is still a tendency to assume tabula rasa from many bureaucracies, including development organisations.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Tabula rasa, which translates to “scraped tablet”, is the idea that when people are born their minds are a blank slate.
Giulio Quaggiotto: So it's much easier to get funding to start something new [00:21:00] rather than looking at the expertise that is already there. And so one of the things that I think is fundamental is that you need to structure yourself to actually start it by saying, “I'm not here to provide solutions to people that somehow have less expertise than me.” But you actually need to start saying, “where is the expertise and how do I harness it?”
Javiera Godoy: So how does this approach fit into the work of the United Nations Development Programme?
Giulio Quaggiotto: One of the things that UNDP has done is creating this network of accelerator labs where one position is called solution mapper, and it's actually a person that is dedicated to look and scour local communities, ecosystem, etc., for solutions that are already there, and expertise that is already there and answers that are already there.
Now even that is not a sufficient condition because it's not enough to find them. It's actually how to interact with them and again [00:22:00], how do you engage with them in a position that doesn't reinforce, again, certain power imbalances and dynamics? And how do you actually share decision-making processes, etc.
That's a much tougher call, but at the very least, starting by identifying this, acknowledging that there are deep structural inequalities will prevent some of the local voices from being heard and enacting them and try to say, “what can you do about it”.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Another area where innovation can encourage positive change is by tackling silos within governance – looking at problems through a systemic lens, rather than boxing them off into departments.
Giulio Quaggiotto: How can one organise oneself around systemic issues? And that means, for example, you know, there is often a tendency to project internal organisational structures into the nature of problems. So for example, if I have an environment unit, climate change becomes an environment issue because that's [00:23:00] the only place I can house it in my organisation, because we have an environment unit or an environment department. And by the moment you basically put climate into the environment department. Oftentimes what that means is that you're losing almost by design a systemic lens on the issue, because then all the other aspects of climate that are not exclusively environment-related tend to be lost by the way that bureaucracies and organisations are organised into small silos.
So polar role of innovation is to start challenging this logic and say, okay, so if we were to organise ourselves differently, to actually start, not from our internal taxonomy, but from the nature of a problem, and work backwards from there, what that does actually look like? And I think that brings the role of innovation unit close to institutional redesign and institutional innovation [00:24:00] rather than necessarily producing solutions, right?
In the moment where we are now, the question of institutional innovation is much more existential for the survival of a development sector, and most importantly, for solving the challenges that we are facing.
Javiera Godoy: As Giulio describes, innovation should not be seen as the cool outsider who makes changes for the sake of change – it plays a more important role behind the scenes in the more operational spaces of governance.
Giulio Quaggiotto: Actually a more meaningful way perhaps to start and more impactful in the long term, is to attend to the dark matter of development organisations, meaning back office, unglamorous operational sites, like legal instruments, partnership agreements, procurement, human resources, etc. If you're actually able to look at this as the places [00:25:00] where you can really start unlocking and unpacking this obsolete logic that comes often from a very different era, you really can potentially transform very deeply the way that the development sector is organised.
If you were able to truly organise a revolution in grant-making, a revolution in, uh, human resources to embrace more systemic logic and addressing this power imbalances, my hypothesis is that this would actually achieve much deeper change. If you're talking about really structural transformations at the moment, the unglamorous side of back office is a better place to start.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: To make global development work for everyone, we need to transform existing structures and embrace the complexity that comes from collaborating with systems and stakeholders in a myriad of contexts.
But what does a reimagined government look like when we consider [00:26:00] more densely populated areas in the Global South? For example, how are changemakers reimagining solutions in and across India – the second most populous country in the world?
Javiera Godoy: We will be finding out after this short break.
AD: Hi Reimagining Government listeners, I'm Will Barber Taylor, the host of the ‘Debated’ podcast. If you're interested in hearing about British politics, why not check out Debated? With over 170 episodes and counting available to listen to featuring MPs, peers, former cabinet ministers and others, you'll never have a better understanding of British politics than we've debated. Listen now wherever you get your podcasts.
News Report: International help is being pledged for India as it battles a ferocious second wave of coronavirus described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a storm that has shaken the nation.
News Report: The number of covid cases in the country is only [00:27:00] increasing and the rise in cases has been fairly consistent. India is on an average reporting a positivity rate of 5% and more.
Javiera Godoy: The Covid-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to Indian government agencies. As with many other countries around the world, this catalysed the government to take a more citizen-centric approach, with public officials encouraged to interact more closely and intentionally with citizens.
News Report: Almost 350,000 new infections were recorded in India in the latest 24-hour period, and 2,767 people have died.
Javiera Godoy: And yet the governments worldwide might be talking increasingly about being citizen-focused. What does a more citizen-centric approach actually look like in practice?
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: One Indian state leading the way in its efforts to amplify citizens' voices [00:28:00] to understand the impact of governance initiatives and the stories behind them is the government of Orissa (now known as Odisha).
Roopa Sahoo: My name is Roopa Roshan Sahoo, and I'm 2006 Batch Indian Administrative Service officer, allotted the Orissa cadre. Since 2017, I have been in the office of the Chief Minister Orissa, and I continue to be there.
I also hold the additional charge of being Secretary Schedule Caste and Scheduled Tribe Overseeing Minorities Department, Orissa.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Roopa Sahoo is Member Secretary of the Poverty & Human Development Monitoring Agency in the government of Orissa.
Javiera Godoy: The Poverty & Human Development Monitoring Agency, or PHDMA, works closely with citizens to listen to their stories and centre their experiences.
Roopa Sahoo: In May 2020, we started with reorienting and re-anchoring the idea of human development monitoring. The logo [00:29:00] of PHDMA, which earlier was symbolic, uh, suggesting statistics and numbers, became a household, five individuals standing, and the human element was introduced in the logo of PHDMA.
Our tagline read that government interventions do not impact people's lives, which can only be through quantitative analysis studied – it is not statistics, it is stories. So when we made this solid posturing about ourselves that from now on Poverty & Human Development Monitoring Agency in Orissa, will talk about the way every intervention of government towards poverty alleviation, eradication and welfare for human development, has impacted the individual.
All government interventions have to be seen as impacting the family and not just the man or the woman or the child [00:30:00] – hence, we need stories. Where numbers end, the story begins. This team in PHDMA was trained to go sit with people, allow them to speak.
But in fact, for this, we needed a structure as to how to go about the conversation. We decided that the structure has to be simple and precise. All we did was ask the man, woman, child, whoever the beneficiary was, if this is in the year, this, how has your life been after? How was your life before? And they would take us through their entire life's journey as to how various interventions and not one converged in the household and that is the impact story that we came up with.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Quantitative data is important in understanding a society's broader aspects, and Roopa acknowledges this. However, it is with qualitative data where we can truly start to see the nuances of lived experience [00:31:00] and explore new ways of understanding impact. Very often, it is through qualitative approaches, such as storytelling, that we can truly assess the impact of public interventions.
Roopa Sahoo: India as a country today is dealing with deprivation. It is not dealing with absolute lack of bare minimum necessities. It is relative deprivation from either one community to another, either one geography to another. Deprivations can be measured through stories. The reason being why one is deprived could be because of availability. It could be because of accessibility, or it could only be because accessibility and availability were determined by factors, which our numbers were not giving us. Of course what I say that when numbers and stories begin, I mean it, that after your numbers are there, you need to work on stories to be able to imagine reality through lived experience.
Javiera Godoy: PHDMA has collected [00:32:00] over 3000 stories. Roopa tells us how these stories have shaped policy in Orissa.
Roopa Sahoo: Orissa is known for its ikat weaving. We are a state which has a substantial weaver population. So when the PHDMA team went to weaver households capturing their lived experience and their narratives, observations ranged from weaving becoming a course in higher education, which would be an enabler for children to take up weaving.
They came up with observations of requirement of loom of a certain type, of lighting of a certain type, and rainy season being a challenge as to, because the shed wasn't there. And all of this made way into policy which was then introduced as SEAMS programme for handloom weavers.
Along with capturing narratives and lived experiences, we also have [00:33:00] started a visual anthropology lab, where our team is trained to capture pictures. Pictures which are on-ground pictures, which tell you about the intervention of government, through the biases of the observer. We have now more than 10,000 pictures in our visual anthropology lab, and the observations vary from one cohort to another with the same picture. This also finds its way into feedback in relation to narratives. Visual anthropology has also generated immense interest amongst policymakers.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Even though the positive benefits of the work of PHDMA is starting to be seen at the local level, Roopa explains that it has been an uphill battle to illustrate the importance of storytelling to some policymakers.
Roopa Sahoo: When I say we collected 3000 stories, 300 have maybe made way into, uh, spaces of being heard. We are seen to be doing something [00:34:00] novel, but is the novel adequately serious for spaces of planning to hear us? Uh, that has been a challenge.
Everybody likes to hear a story, but uh, are they willing to accept the story as feedback? I have asked for qualitative data to be discussed, to be given it's due because it's time that we spoke of stories and we spoke of citizens as being a name and not a number.
Javiera Godoy: Capturing citizens’ stories is a crucial driver for systemic change in countries like India, where contexts can differ significantly across geographies and populations.
Complexity is a given when understanding the challenges that a country with a large population like India faces. People are not numbers; complex problems in a society [00:35:00] cannot always be solved as neatly as a mathematical sum. It is where the numbers end that the stories begin, but it is what we do with these stories where true change can be found.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: India faces challenges surrounding scale and diversity. Every state district block and village is different from one another, often with varying indicators for development. High public spending is a key reason why the state is equipped to solve problems at scale in India. Unlike some African countries, civil society organisations and private players cannot create parallel financial structures to match the government.
Instead, they must be catalytic in leveraging the state's resources. [00:36:00]
Javiera Godoy: Achieving this level of scale in India means going beyond growth and replications of smaller solutions. To ‘designing for scale’ from the beginning.
Sanjay Purohit: My name is Sanjay Purohit. I'm the Chief Curator of Societal Thinking at the EkStep Foundation.
Javiera Godoy: Societal Thinking is an organisation that helps leaders explore different pathways to induce exponential change by looking at the problems through different frames, by designing platforms for scale, by leveraging exponents to build faster and better. Sanjay leads their work on resolving complex societal challenges with speed, at scale and sustainably.
Sanjay Purohit: So societal scale is essentially obsessing with the size of the problem rather than the size of the solution that we may have come out with. And the problems that we face as a world today are ones that are of societal scale, whether they be justice, [00:37:00] gender equity, climate, hunger, different kinds of issues, – economic inclusion – we could take any topic, all of them are issues that permeate all the elements of our societal construct.
And so it's important that when we have to imagine a solution, what we have to imagine is a network or an ecosystem of solutions, different solutions that respond to different elements of the society in their own context, such that we are able to address the problem at a societal scale from different lenses.
I always use this term that an elephant is not a big mouse, and 2000 mice do not make an elephant. The question is, if you desire an elephant, then the whole embryo has to look like an elephant's embryo. And so the question of scale has to be designed from the very beginning – what would it grow up to be? Would it grow up to be a network of innovators who are putting together diverse solutions, a shared infrastructure that everybody can leverage so nobody has to build again and again [00:38:00] the same things that have been discussed and designed before? And they can share the resources and focus on what's abundant in the society that you can actually leverage to solve the problems at scale. If we need to solve something at the societal scale, we need to essentially not distribute solutions but distribute the ability to solve, distribute an infrastructure that can help many people solve. And create an ecosystem of solvers who can solve the problem in their respective societies, in their respective context, in a unified way.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: The need to reimagine government in India stems from complexity, and it's for this reason that government in India is so important. Government is best equipped to solve for this kind of scale.
Sanjay Purohit: We are dealing with problems that move very fast and sometimes can move faster than the solution. You try to solve from one end, but the problem becomes even worse on the other end. So we need to bring three important capabilities together.
The ability to understand the community and the behaviour [00:39:00] and what happens in reality on the ground. And that is best brought together by civil society organisations because they're there with the people, every day, understanding what's going on. We need to bring in the different players who are good at innovation, who are good at trying and failing, and who are good at attempting, experimenting without bothering whether it'll succeed or not.
To do something at scale, we have to bring the entire resource base of the country or the society at scale, and that is where the government plays a massively important role. The government has been entrusted by the society to take care of all of society. It has built its infrastructure, that reaches every nook and corner of the country. To solve a problem at societal scale, you need to ensure that what is abundant becomes effective, what is scarce becomes irrelevant.
There could be a good case to say that the distribution of change is best managed [00:40:00] through a very wide network. And the wide network is either the community itself, which could be done through social movements, which could be done through different kinds of mobilisation processes, or it's the government. And I'm not saying A versus B, depending on the change that we are trying to drive. Some changes are best driven through the large-scale engagement of the government. And some changes are best driven to the large-scale engagement of the community. I believe that it's like a stool with three legs: the government, the civil society and the private sector. And the question is, which leg is important? I guess all of them.
Javiera Godoy: In India, there is a vast difference in access to technology. A third of the country has no access to a smartphone or feature phone, and just under half of the population has access to the internet. As the world becomes increasingly digitised, India will need a solid digital backbone accessible to all to ensure the sustainability [00:41:00] of a large-scale system.
Sanjay Purohit: I think the role of digital essentially is to create that backbone that carries knowledge, that carries trust – it's very important – that persists because one of the biggest problems in development is that there will be transitions, there'll be political transitions, there'll be social transitions. A very intelligent use of technology and a digital shared infrastructure helps us to create that foundation in which our past persists and in which there is knowledge to be able to design an emergent and dynamically evolving future.
For example, if there is a rectangle that you give to a child and request the child to colour that rectangle, typically there could be three choices. One is to colour it with vertical lines till you fill the rectangle. Second is to colour with horizontal lines. Third is to pretty much colour where you fancy and then fill the pieces that are left empty.
There are some implementations [00:42:00] of technology where one could create the vertical lines. They’re very monolithic, very heavy designs where from user experience to the backend, everything is bundled and tightly coupled together into a very sophisticated, highly thought through, very deeply designed software applications, etc.
But the problem with that is that, they struggle to change in a society, which is going to change by the time we are even done with designing and building something like this. If I was to go half as early randomly filling the rectangle, I could build an application here and an application there. And half the time they don't talk to each other and, and we see it all over the place. Government systems don't talk to civil society systems. They don't talk to private sector systems. And so, so we're generally going around, and in our own creative way, filling the rectangle and then somebody will come and say, oh, there's a white spot, I'll build one more application to fit that white spot.
What if we were to think about colouring the rectangle in horizontal lines? That take [00:43:00] the most smallest and the fundamental unit of value. For example, how do I even find out who are the people who should be covered by this scheme? So that's the first line. I build an infrastructure that can be used by 1.3 billion people to identify which schemes are relevant for them.
Then I build the second line. The second line is if it be so, how do I ensure that I can trust the eligibility of someone that when they say they claim a certain scheme, they're eligible for that scheme? You build it layer by layer such that the equilibrium of the society shifts from point A to point B to point C to point D.
Now one might say that, oh, that's doing too little and might take too much of time. But well, history tells us that after spending many, many decades, we still haven't been able to solve through vertical lines or haphazard colouring, so might as well try the third one, which is to build a shared infrastructure and let the equilibrium of the society shift slowly [00:44:00] and steadily over time.
Morag Mwenya Neill-Johnson: Sanjay's rectangle analogy may seem like a simplistic and time-consuming solution to the pervasive and time-dependent problems we face. But it's important to remember that collaboration and experimentation, trial and error are the best way to find the most suitable and context-led solutions. Sometimes this means taking a step back into the very fundamentals in order to solve complex exponential challenges.
Javiera Godoy: Addressing development challenges in India is an immense task that requires collaboration across public, private, philanthropic and civil society players. There is much that can be learned from inside the government and through cooperation with organisations such as Societal Thinking. By working closely together across these boundaries with partners, governments have the best chance of tackling [00:45:00] the enduring challenges they face and ultimately improving the lives of the communities they serve.
Sanjay Purohit: Every sustainable development goal is large, complex and dynamic. Then the way to deal with them is that we have to come out with an approach which is not linear in nature, because we have to address it faster than the rate at which the problem grows.
And so the fundamental values of agency of people, how do we make that stronger; dignity of people, how do we nurture that? And choice of people, how do we enable that? Is so basic that if we get some of those things right, it starts a chain reaction of things in the society such that other systems starts connecting.
It's important for us to dig down into what is that change, which will inspire more change.
Adrian Brown: As highlighted by our guests, if we attempt [00:46:00] to apply a fix all solution to reimagine global development, we will not see the change we aspire to. Taking context into account is crucial in addressing these challenges through a justice-oriented lens. And the future of global development must shift power dynamics, embrace complexity and incorporate more learning-oriented approaches.
This means thinking systemically, rethinking the traditional roles of development actors, and above all else, centring the experience of local communities, practitioners and governments working together. Perhaps then a universal lesson to reimagining government and global development is the need to embrace collaboration across boundaries between the public and private sectors, as well as civil society, and above all between civil servants and practitioners working in-country with the people most impacted by policies and development programming,
Rebuilding a more sustainable approach to governance across the world is no mean feat. [00:47:00] It requires the courage to step outside of the comfort zone of long-standing traditions and approaches in development practice. But from hearing the stories of change-makers from this series, it's clear to see we are making progress where it matters.
Extraordinary people worldwide are making the changes needed to reimagine government by the people and for the people. But for change to happen, we must continue to push boundaries. Support civil servants acting against the status quo and encourage space for experimentation and learning. The time to reimagine government is now and together as citizens, as public servants, as change-makers, we can achieve a new vision for governance that benefits all.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Reimagining Government. The conversation on the theme of this episode, reimagining global development, continues over on [00:48:00] apolitical.co. If you are a public servant or policymaker, we want to hear from you, who in government inspires you and why? 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.
Thank you to our change-makers and hosts throughout this podcast who have given tremendous insight into how government can be transformed. Please get in touch and leave us a review on your favourite podcast platform to let us know your thoughts on the series. Until we meet again, 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.