Policymakers face challenges too numerous to list here. But in addition to the usual – economic growth, jobs, health care and so on – they also need to look in the mirror and ask themselves whether their systems of governance remain suited to today’s fluctuating demands. This is not a new ambition.

Those who have the good fortune to visit Washington, DC’s Jefferson Memorial can see for themselves a quotation from one of America’s most important founding fathers: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but … with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” Helping them do so – in the US and around the world – is where I and my team at the OECD’s Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate come in. It is a role we relish.

We have no shortage of areas to focus on. Although we’re based in Paris, ours is very much a global organisation that seeks to tackle global problems. And our efforts don’t stop at our 34 member countries. Globalisation has ensured that our small planet has never been more interconnected or closely entwined. Problems in Shanghai, for example, are not limited to China or indeed the region but can have huge effects on economies and people around the world.

This means that when it comes to addressing challenges such as institutional reform, innovation and transparency, we focus on supporting governments to improve the performance of their public sectors for both the wellbeing of citizens and the competitiveness of their economies. The two are interlinked.

OECD: escaping the shadow of crisis

Although I joined the OECD in 1991 I have been in my current role for a little over six years, which means that the aftermath of the global financial crisis has been playing out across borders for much of my time in post. The crisis, of course, exposed deep limitations in governance and regulatory systems not only in banks but in governments too.

Although countries have slowly turned the corner, moving back into growth and higher employment, the invidious legacy of the crisis continues to haunt today’s landscape. Among its many repercussions – drained budgets, higher deficits, lower tax revenues – is its impact on the relationship between citizens and their governments.

Although public expectations of government are continuously rising, we found from a Gallup poll that, between 2007 and 2012, confidence in national governments declined from 45% to 40%, hugely undermining the many government policies, programmes and regulations that depend on citizens’ cooperation and compliance. These findings indicate that governments need to become not only more reliable and responsive, but also more open and better regulated. Strengthening the integrity and inclusiveness of policymaking is also important.

The OECD is helping. We seek to strengthen governments in every component of government machinery that needs improvement and we do this in many ways. For example, countries need to learn from each other. Some are enjoying 3% growth. That’s good. But what about those countries that have grown by 5% over the same period? This is no time for insularity. Although each individual situation is different, we need to shine a light on what is happening across borders.

Quality is key

Governments also need to start considering the policymaking process as a whole. Delivery, while important, is not the be-all and end-all. They need to look at the policy cycle in its totality, and recognise that proper assessments, the participation of citizens and implementation mechanisms are all of huge value. Few governments take the time to assess how their policies are working in practice. If they were to pause and look at what they are delivering then they would be better placed to bridge the divide that has opened up between governments and their citizens.

Similarly, governments have a responsibility to consider the long-term consequences of their policies. How will our world look in 10, 15, or 25 years’ time? I fear this question is hardly echoing through today’s corridors of power and yet it should be. Take demographic changes. Here is a hugely important trend that doesn’t require an actuarial degree to dissect. We’re getting older. It’s a fact and while governments need to adapt their policies accordingly, not many have succeeded in doing so.

What’s needed is a change of mindset. Long-term goals should be broken down into smaller, yet actionable promises that can be achieved. It’s far from a mission impossible – and the OECD is ready, willing and able to help. Let’s get to work.

 

FURTHER READING

  • Beltway and beyond. Former senior advisor to two US presidents, Elliott Abrams, shares his perspective on how governments can achieve more
  • Malaysia on the march. Dato Sri Idris Jala is tasked with overseeing Malaysia’s sweeping government and economic reforms; he tells us about a role rooted in delivery and implementation.
  • From imagination to innovation. Faced with what are often seen as mountainous challenges, policymakers are increasingly reliant on creativity to power their ascent, explains Alan Iny
  • African dawn. South African campaigner, academic, public servant and business leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele tells us why good governance is critical to positive public impact
  • DC despatch. Kate Josephs reflects on her experiences driving performance improvement in the British and US governments
  • Making prioritisation a priority. Emmet Regan examines how governments can better at prioritising the array of tasks they face on a daily basis
  • The God Revolution. Public impact is easier said than done, admits former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell, who explains why impact is rarely viewed as a key priority among policymakers
  • Man on a mission. Former UK government minister Lord Andrew Adonis sets out how to move from policy design to implementation
  • Sustaining Singapore’s success. The chairman of Singapore’s Economic Development Board,Dr Beh Swan Gin, reveals how the city state went from third world to first – and how to stay there