Even Usain Bolt trains to get faster. The same is true for government: every agency can do more to improve citizens’ lives, regardless of their size, politics or economics.

That’s the premise behind the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), a non-profit foundation set up to improve the positive impact of governments. “Our mission is to work with governments and their stakeholders to improve their focus on outcomes and impact,” explains Adrian Brown, its Executive Director.

Over the past two years, CPI – which was set up by The Boston Consulting Group – has worked with hundreds of leading officials around the world, and has identified three magic ingredients it believes are essential for good government. These “fundamentals apply universally” across policy areas, Brown says.

In an exclusive interview with GovInsider, Brown discusses lessons from CPI’s work so far, and how every government can take some time out to improve what they do, and how they do it.

The public impact fundamentals

The first of the three fundamentals, policy, is the primary focus of many civil servants’ work. Here officials should set clear objectives during the early stages of design, Brown advises.

It is also crucial to gather data, and consider the practicalities. “A policy initiative is more likely to achieve its intended outcomes when the question of how the policy is to be implemented has been an integral part of its design,” CPI’s research has found.

The next element, action, has been emphasised through central delivery units which focus on implementing policies. Brown, himself a veteran of the Number 10 Delivery Unit (the first in the world to be set up) adds that “the idea is not just developing great policy ideas,” but “seeing it through”. Delivery relies upon skills, progress tracking, and coordination across agencies.

Finally, legitimacy is a crucial but much neglected third element for creating public impact. Building legitimacy has often been considered a role for politicians, but there is a broader role for civil servants, Brown says, to engage with citizens. Tools like focus groups, panels and citizen surveys can provide a simpler start for officials to understand citizens’ feedback.

On a more advanced level, governments can boost public participation early in their decision making process. This “encourages people to feed into the policymaking process, rather than just trying to sell it to them at the end of the process”, Brown says.

An example that stands out is South Australia’s Citizen’s Jury scheme, which asks citizens to come up with solutions to particularly thorny issues in the community. A randomly selected panel of citizens hear evidence from experts, before writing an independent report with recommendations to the government.

Artificial intelligence

A new area of focus for CPI this year is artificial intelligence. “We do think in the 5, 10 or 15-year horizon, the changes could be quite significant. So it’s important that governments start thinking about this now,” Brown says.

This is because of the huge amounts of data governments have to process. “A lot of government is actually about information processing and decision making, which are exactly the kind of activities that machine learning and AI technologies can help improve,” Brown says.

Broadly, CPI believes AI will reshape governments in two ways. First, it will be to improve the speed, reliability and quality of government services. Second, it will allow officials to rethink existing government structures. But before any of these can happen, governments must “start trialling or thinking about which areas these technologies might best be deployed within public sector”, Brown says.

CPI has recently launched a project to research AI’s impact on the operation of government. “We think it can disrupt government not just at the service delivery level, but policy making, we think, could be transformed and even broader accountability structures can be transformed by these technologies,” he explains.

As part of this project, CPI is working with leaders in the domain across public sector, businesses and academia. “What we’re hoping to do is to get leading thinkers in the space to put their names against a set of principles for government when they’re thinking about AI technologies,” he adds.

Impact in developing countries

CPI works with governments globally, across developing and developed countries. Developing countries, despite limited resources, can often leapfrog more advanced countries, it has found. “In a developing context, the opportunity to try something quite radical might be higher,” Brown says. Meanwhile, developed countries with more “entrenched” systems can find it harder to bring in new ways of thinking and modern approaches.

There’s as much potential for mature countries to learn from younger ones as the other way around, he adds. For instance, Mexico, where CPI has recently been working, can offer lessons on citizen engagement.

Mexico City recently completed a year-long process to crowdsource suggestions for a new constitution. Its 9 million residents could petition for ideas for new laws and comment on drafters’ proposals and track changes publicly. In the constitution approved this year by a committee of legal experts, citizens’ suggestions made their way into articles on greening, and LGBTI and disability rights.

There is a huge amount of work that CPI has done just in its first two years, pulling together global expertise to help government officials improve their performance.

But unlike Usain Bolt, these principles aren’t about a race. Instead, CPI exists to help officials overcome the hurdles of government. Regardless of their place on the starting line.

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