Act: Inspiration

From #Resistance to #Reimagining Governance: 6 Shifts that can Improve the Way we Solve Public Problems

December 19, 2017

We live in turbulent times. Around the world, old certainties are in flux, being jettisoned by voters and protestors for new, often radically different ideas and institutions. This upheaval is evident in specific political events – the Arab Spring, the election of Trump, Brexit – but also in a more general distrust of conventional wisdom, élite authority, and technocratic control.

At the same time, trust in government worldwide is at an all-time low. According to a recent Pew survey, only 20% of Americans say they trust the government always or most of the time. Other surveys indicate that faith in democracy as a form of government has fallen to recent lows in many western nations, including in the United States and Europe.

These are just some of the many indications of a general lack of faith and confidence in established institutions, including government, the media, science, and the financial sector. We are living, as an article in the Washington Post put it, in an “era of disbelief.”

The upheaval generated by this disbelief seems to feed on itself. Action leads to reaction, and changes to political, economic or cultural sources of authority often lead to pushback and new forms of resistance. The growing meme of Resistance (#Resistance, to borrow the terminology of its adherents) has been particularly evident in the United States since the election of Donald Trump. But the sentiment is also evident in other parts of the world, notably Europe, where street protests and extremists often push past political norms and ideological boundaries – notably in Brexit and the rise of far-right parties across the continent (though Emmanuel Macron’s election in France suggests the continuing potential of counter-movements). Similarly, the Arab Spring emerged largely as a resistance movement, seeking to overthrow long-established rulers and systems of authority.

There is no doubt that #Resistance (and its associated movements) holds genuine transformative potential. But for the change it brings to be meaningful (and positive), we need to ask the question: What kind of government do we really want?

Working to maintain the status quo or simply returning to, for instance, a pre-Trump reality cannot provide for the change we need to counter the decline in trust, the rise of populism and the complex social, economic and cultural problems we face. We need a clear articulation of alternatives.  Without such an articulation, there is a danger of a certain hollowness and dispersion of energies. The call for #Resistance requires a more concrete –and ultimately more productive – program that is concerned not just with rejecting or tearing down, but with building up new institutions and governance processes. What’s needed, in short, is not simply #Resistance.

Below, I suggest six shifts that can help us reimagine governance for the twenty-first century. Several of these shifts are enabled by recent technological changes (e.g., the advent of big data, blockchain and collective intelligence) as well as other emerging methods such as design thinking, behavioral economics, and agile development.

Some of the shifts I suggest have been experimented with, but they have often been developed in an ad hoc manner without a full understanding of how they could make a more systemic impact. Part of the purpose of this paper is to begin the process of a more systematic enquiry; the following amounts to a preliminary outline or blueprint for reimagined governance for the twenty-first century.

Shift 1: from gatekeeper to platform

To begin assembling this blueprint, we first need to consider how the old model of government as a centralized gatekeeper of information and resources can be replaced by a more open model in which government serves as a platform to match distributed resources (supply) to distributed needs (demand).

Our society faces increasingly complex and inter-dependent challenges – climate change, social inequality, terrorism, rapid and unplanned urbanization. This is the demand side of the equation. At the same time, on the supply side, technological advances have given us two new resources to address the challenges: data and an increasingly connected global population, which in turn leads to a more collective and distributed expertise. The opportunity is thus to unlock both the data that is being collected and tap into and connect the distributed expertise to provide innovative, inter-disciplinary, and cross-border or cross-agency solutions.

If we are to seize this opportunity, then we need to begin by moving beyond existing approaches to governance and information-sharing, where a centralized agency determines who (or what institution) should have access to what specific (often sector-specific) data. What’s required instead is a far more flexible, distributed platform that can match the supply and the demand of data. Such a system is far better equipped to efficiently channel information to those who can best use it. It is also more strategically placed to gather and collect expertise and insight from disparate and dispersed sources, for example using crowdsourced information and the collective intelligence of both data creators and users.

Some examples of such “people centric platforms” do exist. They include, for instance, SERMO, a global social network that allows physicians to share expertise, evaluate patient prescriptions, and communicate with peers. Similarly, GoodSAM in the UK or Pulsepoint in the US are mobile applications that allow users to self-identify as CPR-trained in order to respond to cardiac emergencies in their area; both platforms demonstrating the potential for citizens to supplement government services, particularly emergency services.

More than 100 examples are collected and analyzed in the GovLabs’ “data collaboratives” project, which seeks to identify innovative uses of private (often corporate) data to meet public challenges. For example, one notable data collaborative is a partnership between telecommunications company Safaricom and the Harvard School of Public Health, where Safaricom provides de-identified mobile phone data to researchers; they, in turn, map the incidence of malaria and the movement of people. All these examples point to the emergence of new models of public-private partnerships that, considered together, represent an important shift in governance practices and processes.

Shift 2: from inward to user-and-problem orientation

Too much government is currently focused on government itself: inwardly directed, aimed more at bureaucratic expediency than the needs of citizens. Government processes and institutions should be re-designed to focus on outcomes – to solve real problems faced by the public, and to address the needs of citizens rather than government officials.

One way to facilitate this shift is to introduce more design thinking and other user-centric methods into government. Several government innovation labs (e.g., MindLab in Denmark or MaRS Solutions Lab in Canada) have already begun this process. Early results are encouraging, but one key challenge they face is finding ways to scale practices so that there is a government-wide adoption of a user-centric mindset.

Moving to more user-centric forms of government also means striving for less complexity. Some examples of such initiatives include Portugal’s Simplex program, which seeks to address the need for simplifying the Portuguese public sector and its service delivery; or the US’s “plainlanguage” initiative, which seeks to support the use of clear communication in government writing.

What’s essential in such approaches is to stop the steady and apparently inexorable creep toward more bureaucracy (attempted, for example, in Slovakia, with its Stop Bureaucracy initiative). It is also important to become more sensitive to context, and to adopt design principles that focus on constant iteration and improvements so as to improve the responsiveness and accountability of government and its participants.

Shift 3: from closed to open

Openness should become a core principle of effective twenty-first century governance. The traditional closed, top-down model of government is not only anachronistic, but also increasingly ineffective in an era of open sourcing and crowdsourced innovation. Indeed, it is precisely this closed characteristic of governance – embodied in hierarchical, authoritative patterns and bureaucratic control – that the dispersed #Resistance movement is directed against.

Opening-up government will not only make government more effective; it will also go a considerable way to overcoming the growing deficit of trust that today characterizes the relationship between citizens and the state.

In practice, becoming more open means, at a minimum, opening up government data, and using open innovation methods to solicit input and ideas from a broader base. The Obama administration’s move to increase access to government data (in particular its launch of the site) has played a large part in increasing the global visibility and the legitimacy of the concept of open governance.

Around the world, in both developed and developing countries, governments have created or are considering creating open data programs and portals. As evidenced by research conducted by the GovLab (supported by Omidyar Network), open data projects are playing an increasingly important role in economic and social development, spurring progress in areas as varied as healthcare, education, banking, agriculture, climate change and innovation.

Similarly, several governments have started to experiment with open mechanisms, including prizes and challenges, to encourage and incentivize innovation in governance. Such efforts include the White House’s platform, where more than 740 challenges from more than 100 agencies across federal government have been launched since its creation in 2010. These efforts remain fledgling – though promising – and more research is required to increase our understanding of whether, and under what conditions, they can really lead to lasting, sustainable shifts in governance paradigms.

Shift 4: from deliberation to collaboration and co-creation

Traditionally, citizen engagement has been focused on deliberation or enabling citizens to “air their voice.” Yet people don’t just possess voices; they also possess expertise that can be used to co-create solutions. Citizen expertise comes in a range of flavors – from interests and experiences to skills and credentialed knowledge. All of these are potentially valuable for governments to engage with and harness when attempting to solve problems.

Expertise in the twenty-first century has several distinctive characteristics. For one thing, it is fundamentally dispersed and fragmented – spread across disciplines, geographies and other boundaries. This fragmentation is a result both of new technologies, which spread insights more widely, and the increasing complexity of public problems, which calls for a great mix of disciplines and perspectives.

Given these characteristics, it naturally follows that effective solutions can only result from greater inter-connectivity – i.e., bringing together people’s dispersed expertise to create more collaborative forms of governance. Crowdsourcing is one powerful example: it allows disparate actors, many of whom have traditionally been excluded from the processes of governance, to share knowledge and collaboratively generate solutions. vTaiwan is an interesting example of a collaborative platform that can lead to collaborative solutions. It is an AI-driven discussion platform that collects questions, suggestions and comments from citizens. Once collected, these questions are addressed in public meetings, broadcast online, whose goal is to build consensus around priority problem areas and important considerations in solving those problems. The final goal of the platform is to lead to crowdsourced legislation drafting – often called crowdlaw.

In addition to their role in drawing on dispersed expertise, such crowdsourced approaches may have other advantages. At its core, collective intelligence is fundamentally concerned with bringing in outliers’ expertise. As such, it may also go some distance toward addressing perceptions of inequality and marginalization that have contributed to the current crisis of governance and the birth of #Resistance movements and ideologies.

Shift 5: from ideology to evidence-based

Today’s government is in many ways a relic of the past. Institutions and processes are based on what worked (or was perceived to work) decades or even centuries ago; in many cases, they are the result of archaic beliefs or ideologies about the role of the state and its relationship to citizens. Today, however, governments can leverage the vast troves of data and analytical capacity, often available in real time, to move toward a more evidence-based governance model.

Boosting analytical capacity is central to this shift. This means new hiring and training practices, as well as a willingness to invest in and build the technical tools required to sift through vast piles of often unstructured data. Institutions must also commit to acting on the insights and lessons gleaned from data. Most fundamentally, government (its institutions and processes) must be re-conceptualized as a constantly evolving, iterative project – one that is far more nimble and agile than its current incarnation.

Some countries have taken steps in this direction. The UK, for instance, has pioneered the What Works Network, a collaborative of 7 independent What Works Centres and 2 affiliate members that collate evidence to evaluate how effective policy programs and practices are. The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP) was established by the US Congress in 2016 to “develop a strategy for increasing the availability and use of data in order to build evidence about government programs, while protecting privacy and confidentiality”. In its final report among other steps, the Commission has recommended establishing a National Secure Data Service “to facilitate access to data for evidence building while ensuring privacy and transparency in how those data are used.” The goal of this new service is to link existing government data on a temporary basis (without creating a permanent data warehouse) in order to help institutions, policymakers and other actors better analyze the effectiveness of government programs and processes.

Shift 6: from centralized to distributed

The final shift that needs to take place is a move from the current centralized, top-down model of government to one that is decentralized and distributed. Much as knowledge in the twenty-first century is dispersed, so are lines of authority, communication and even personal identities (citizens’ allegiances and sense of self are rarely as cohesive and unitary as in the past).

In response, every stage of the policy cycle should be re-designed in a more decentralized and distributed manner – from agenda-setting to response identification, to implementation, enforcement and review.

A good example of distributed agenda setting can be found in Madrid’s open government platform, DecideMadrid, developed by Medialab-Prado, which encourages citizens to submit proposals to improve the city. If at least 1% of site visitors (currently 27,064 people over the age of 16 visit the site on a regular basis) are interested in a submitted idea, then the idea moves to a voting phase. In February 2017, after a preliminary vote, two submitted ideas were actually enacted by the city council. Other successful examples of distributed governance include the Constituent Assembly used to draft Egypt’s constitution, and the Democracy in Action incentive that encourages citizen engagement and participatory budgeting in Chicago’s 49th Ward.

It is worth noting that the emergence and application of blockchain technologies (BCT) can accelerate distributed approaches to governance. BCTs deploy a shared, synchronized, distributed ledger of transactions, guaranteeing privacy and security; this leads to greater integrity of data and increased trust by providing a permanent record of who accessed ledgers and what they did.

By providing transparency and accountability in new and distributed ways, BCTs have the potential to positively empower populations to become part of the governance process using trusted identities. One interesting example can be found in the Voatz platform, which seeks to provide a mobile election platform using blockchain technology. The platform seeks to allow for more direct citizen engagement on a wider variety of topics, and has been used, at the local level like the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate election or during events like the Massachusetts Democratic Party State Convention.

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In combination, the six shifts outlined above suggest a radically new approach to governance – one focused more on flexibility and responsiveness, and better attuned to the inherent need for meaningful relationships between citizen and the state. Old barriers and old hierarchies that limit growth and change must be replaced by the more collaborative approach described above. Citizens are no longer simply governed; they are, in fact, essential components of governance.

Of course these six shifts represent only an outline, the scaffolding of a #Reimagined governance for the twenty-first century. While we have provided some specific examples, the precise manifestation of these principles will vary from context to context, geography to geography.

What matters is the effort to move beyond mere resistance and onto a more substantive engagement with rebuilding – to ask what comes next, and to harness the current disenchantment and loss of faith in a more productive manner. It is said that moments of crisis are also moments of opportunity. There is little doubt that we face a crisis of governance at the moment; this is also a chance to design a new and improved government.


Teaser photo credit: By David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Stefaan G. Verhulst

Stefaan G. Verhulst is Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer of the Governance Laboratory @New York University (GovLab), an action research centre dedicated to improving governance through advances in technology. He is senior advisor to the Markle Foundation in New York, where he was Chief of Research. Previously he was Director of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at Oxford University (UK) from 1996. He has published widely in the areas of communications law and policy.

Tags: building resilient societies, governance, participatory governance