Amongst other things, 2020 was the year of the horoscope. The $2.2bn industry boomed during an uncertain year, continuing a trend of increasing VC investments and revenues for astrology apps.

This may ring true for government officials. Across the world, they have been trying to predict the future based on differing opinions, vague data points, and ever-changing information often from far away.

2021 will be very different. Essentially it is the year of Meccano – doing the fiddly work of building surprisingly complex systems from simple parts, and replicating at scale.

Here are five predictions for the year ahead:

International data frameworks

Nations will need to store information on who has been vaccinated, enabling citizens to start travelling and engaging with the world again.

This is a big challenge for the international system. Countries will store this information in different ways, and will need to verify that tourists are safe to enter.

China has promoted the idea of a universal QR code, and already uses QR codes successfully for their national system. This may face problems, CNN reports, with the United States in particular unwilling to adopt a China-led solution.

A new solution may instead emerge led by the World Health Organisation, advised by the Estonian Government. At a lecture I held for the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy last year, Estonian data chief Marten Kaevats spoke about his work on building data systems and frameworks for nations to opt into sharing vaccine passports internationally.

This system would stress global interoperability, building on the Estonian Government’s own methods for sharing data sets across government without a central registry, according to ERR.

Trust

Governments have hoovered up incredible amounts of data as they fight against this pandemic. Records of personal meetings, for instance, have been vital for contact tracing.

But there will come a point this year when there are questions about how long this data should be stored for. Some will call for ‘sunsetting’ on data storage, with all records deleted after a set time period. Already, some contact tracing apps – such as in the UK – do this but there will still be a debate about the transparency of how data is used (only for contact tracing or also by police?), stored, and kept secure.

Team building

The challenges of 2020 have seen the growth of multi-disciplinary teams across government, from contact tracing to the future economy. This trend is set to continue, hopefully powered by greater data sharing and HR flexibility.

Andrew Greenway of Public Digital spoke about this trend last year at our festival, and has blogged that governments should “have a dedicated, multidisciplinary team in place to lead their online response. This delivery team should have a product manager, a writer/content designer, a technologist to make sure things can scale, a developer who can code, a user researcher/someone to monitor web analytics and an expert who can check medical advice for accuracy, and a communications lead linking to the government’s wider comms response.”

There is also a challenge of how to make decisions, and bring on new staff, in a completely virtual environment. This will create new ideas and hopefully some new breakthroughs in government HR processes.

Complexity

 

Much of 2020 has been spent dealing with the chaos of the pandemic, responding quickly to build stability and keep people safe.

2021 sees governments enter a newly complex environment where they must feel out opportunities, respond quickly, and be bold in seizing the opportunities for a reshaping world.

The Singapore Government uses David Snowden’s “cynefin diagram” as a good way to structure priorities, according to the former head of the civil service in an interview last year. Nations must “probe, sense, respond” to understand how the world is adapting, requiring continual feedback, communications, and agility.

Hard Priorities

2021 will be a year of prioritisation. As Mervyn King wrote in The Spectator recently, “the right response to the pandemic was to support businesses until all the restrictions could be lifted. Only then would we know which businesses have a viable future in the post-Covid world.”

Decisions now will centre on how to encourage sectors that do have a “viable future”, and how to prioritise public funds after record amounts of spending.

Not only will this require smart economics, but it will require great politics. These complex trade offs will be tough to communicate, and require leadership in spades.

But as Bill Gates has just written, “in the spring of 2021, the vaccines and treatments you’ve been reading about in the news will start reaching the scale where they’ll have a global impact. Although there will still need to be some restrictions (on big public gatherings, for example), the number of cases and deaths will start to go down a lot—at least in wealthy countries—and life will be much closer to normal than it is now.”

Much to be cheerful about as we pull together and come through this crisis. It’s written in the stars. Happy New Year!