It has been said that prediction is hard, especially when it comes to predicting the future! It follows then that any attempt to predict the future of government will be particularly challenging, especially given the changes being brought about by rapid and ongoing social and technological developments. This uncertainty is evident in the current array of forecasts for the role of government and by association the variety of responsibilities needed for public servants. Several scenarios are discussed, with a tentative personal prediction made.
1. Hands Off – Technology-enabled Scenario
Many forecast a world in which the role of government will be significantly reduced and therefore changed in its functions and responsibilities.
With a citizenry increasingly competent in their use of technology and more and more accustomed to sourcing and buying products and services on-line, government can take a hands-off approach to service provision. This is a shift from professionals holding information, to a more self-service model where government uses tool such as app, kiosks to provide access to information and resources, while leaving the work of accessing and applying this to the citizens. In this scenario citizens will have greater ability to determine their own needs and craft bespoke personal and localised responses without excessive interaction or interference by government red-tape.
In this scenario public services are more individualised, responsive and efficient as they will fashioned and delivered via digital tools that draw upon the progressive analytics, visual and interactive capacities made possible by advanced computation, big data and machine engineering, and more recent developments such as blockchains and robotics.
2. Hands-on, data-enabled Scenario:
This position acknowledges that government direct service provision and will probably never return to prior levels, but nonetheless predicts a renewed emphasis on quality services and interaction, albeit informed by data analytics and predictive algorithms for enhanced targeted interventions. Regardless of the push toward individualised, arms-length services noted above, there remain high expectations for government to provide universal services such as education, health, regulation, social support, security and defence that support the well-being of all citizens and contribute to nations’ cohesion and productivity. This demands strong policy-making capacity and administrative oversight for funding and service quality.
The continuation of a more hands-on role is especially important for those citizens with multiple and often complex needs requiring expert bespoke support, who often do not have the level of access, the same technical know-how or even ability to avail themselves to newer self-service products and tools. These are the vulnerable people in our communities who require higher levels of support and personal care that is not possible through self-help on-line options. On the other hand, there are citizens who, while required to participate in services and can do so, may not be willing without personal monitoring and/or encouragement. This scenario reflects more traditional government roles but mixes contemporary analytics for more efficient targeting of intervention efforts, with a supportive service orientation. This said, such ‘heavy intervention’ will be complemented by co-design and co-production practices to increase service uptake and quality outcomes.
3. Hands-holding -enabler Scenario:
The hands-holding scenario is already well-established, if still often imperfectly implemented, for example through partnerships and collaborative arrangements. Here it is recognised that governments’ no longer have the capacity or capability to provide the large-scale infrastructure – both physical and social – that underpins a healthy and productive society, and/or that external bodies and citizen groups, with the necessary resources and expertise are viable partners, through which governments can achieve public value without full cost or responsibility. Here the role of government is less of a provider and more of an ‘enabler’, that is helping to make things happen by providing the right policy and practice context, collecting and providing data and analytics and helping to make connections between the right groups at the right time.
Value-adding connector Scenario: The likelihood is that the three scenarios presented above will all be present in some form or another, and probably will occur in some combined or hybrid form. Assuredly, the future will not just be one of hybridity, but rather hyper hybridity, where departments, organisations, and even sectors will be in constant state of metamorphous, shifting between governance modes, partnership compositions and service foci according to prevailing conditions. Alongside the three options outlined above, will be the evolution and deployment of small networks or ‘cells’ that bring together talent and expertise in intra-inter-organisational working as well as knowledge of current and/or emerging service issues (a) to bridge and broker better integration within and across policy and program areas and (b) facilitate the break-through innovation needed for continued services and service improvements in new and emerging areas. Here the role of government and its personnel becomes that of a ‘value-adding connector‘- strategically linking the right people, resources and ideas to generate not just enhanced services but also the required systems’ changes. Value adding connectors (VACs) will go beyond bridging and brokering systems links, they will deliberately activate, facilitate and manage key systems connections with key outcomes in mind.
To fulfil this VAC role governments and their personnel will take on some additional and newer functions, including being able to combine the growing suite of predictive and visualising tools and /public sectoral expertise to unpack and analyse the operating context and prepare appropriate supporting social infrastructure (policy, funding, regulation management), help cells to identify where to put effort and how to efficiently navigate the system and negotiate to best effect change.
As we near the next significant milestone of 2020, there is little doubt that society will have changed considerably from the present time. Regardless of the scenario, one thing is certain governments will remain relevant if they are smart, responsive and efficient, as well as caring and respectful, and above all produce and/or facilitate public value.
 Niel Bohr