Partnerships between government and other sectors – business and civil society, in particular – are not new, but increasing in frequency, magnitude and sophistication. Apolitical itself is an instantiation of such partnerships, drawing inspiration from multiple sectors in its bid to improve governance capacities worldwide. In this piece, I identify three reasons for this trend, and three examples from my experience as a policymaker in Singapore that show how partnerships can be optimised to generate public value.
Spreading the Load
First, partnerships are a form of necessary burden-sharing. Governments today have to fulfil more roles than ever before: from traditional roles as providers of public order (a la Hobbes) and public goods (a la economists like Paul Samuelson), to more recent ones like convening, aggregating and facilitating discussions among communities with diverging interests. Faced with these growing demands, governments can either hire more in a bid to keep up – what some might call “bureaucratic bloat” – or craft ways to distribute some of the burden to businesses, civil society and even individual citizens. In effect, “government” would give way to the broader notion of “governance”.
Government’s burdens are increasingly complex: in the sense that they are difficult to define ex ante, and subject to non-linear interdependencies that result in emergent properties, rather than stable and predictable equilibria. Wicked problems like climate change, demographic challenges, extremist terrorism and chauvinistic nationalism are multiplying and growing more inter-connected by the day. What’s more, better educated citizens have more sophisticated expectations, and are increasingly enabled by a pervasive internet and other disruptive technologies. The burdens that governments need to share are not just quantitatively more numerous; they are also qualitatively more challenging …
… which leads to the third reason partnerships are valuable: they harness different mindsets, attitudes, knowledge and wisdom. Cognitive science has increasingly shown that people have different biases in how they perceive the world, process information and make decisions. Some biases are innate, others determined by our disciplinary training, yet others by the cultures of the organisations we inhabit. Governments tend to emphasise strict metrics in order to be accountable for resource use; the best businesses tend towards agility as they adjust to shifting commercial conditions; civil society organisations tend to emphasise individual human outcomes rather than broad, system-wide considerations. These are critical in how we tackle the aforementioned wicked problems of our time: the best partnerships help to ensure that wide-ranging perspectives are brought to bear in our collective problem-solving.
What Can We Do?
Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom noted that governance of complex systems needs to be “polycentric”: characterised by “many centers of decision making that are formally independent of each other”, but which can collaborate. The form of this collaboration will naturally vary for different issues and projects, but there are three broad archetypes.
1. Partnership through Advice
Partners can play important advisory roles through sitting on agency boards, as well as ad hoc committees that governments might set up. In Singapore, implementing agencies or “statutory boards” (so named because each is set up by an Act of Parliament) each have a board of directors. Each board typically has robust private sector representation; several are even chaired by captains of industry. During Singapore’s periodic economic reviews, the most recent of which (the Committee on the Future Economy) took place from Jan 2016 – Feb 2017, more than half of the main and sub-committees comprised members from the private sector. In both examples, partners outside government have provided invaluable, fresh views from their respective vantage points in industry, as well as along different parts of economic value chains.
On some issues, it is possible for partners to play an even deeper role and take responsibility for the co-design of policy with the public sector. For instance, Singapore’s Pro-Enterprise Panel (PEP) is a private-public panel chaired by the Head of Civil Service, with mainly business leaders as members, and supported by a network of senior public officers. The PEP serves as an internal advocate for businesses within the government to enable a more pro-enterprise environment that facilitates the growth of competitive businesses. As noted on its website, the Panel “works closely with public agencies to provide timely, effective and practical solutions to address the regulatory concerns that businesses face”. Non-government panel members have brought a useful energy and entrepreneurial spirit to the discussions, and complemented public sector perspectives with innovative ideas.
An even “thicker” role for partners is in co-implementation of policy – effectively working hand in glove with government agencies to generate public value. Singapore’s well-known Formula One race is a case in point. A product of deep collaboration between the government and the Singapore Grand Prix (the local race promoter), the race is a one-of-a-kind night and street race that generates both tourism value and buzz. Government involvement is key, since the street race requires road closures and other coordination around public infrastructure, while SGP’s involvement ensures commercial savvy and constant innovation to improve the experiences of race fans and other attendees.
These three modalities are far from discrete, and in fact can coexist even in single projects. At their core, they illustrate the rich ways in which public outcomes can be enhanced when governments, businesses, civil society and other partners collaborate rather than compete or crowd each other out.
(Picture Credit: Pixabay)