Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 October 2019

For effective governance in today's world, good education is the need of the hour

The challenge is to provide governments the opportunity to upgrade the skillset of their policymakers and civil services with an emphasis on contemporary governance issues

Pro-EU supporters protest during a rally in London this month. We have all been struck by the increasingly acerbic nature of public debate in recent times. AP Photo
Pro-EU supporters protest during a rally in London this month. We have all been struck by the increasingly acerbic nature of public debate in recent times. AP Photo

There is no doubt that the process of governing is getting increasingly complex. For a start, a well-educated global public is becoming more demanding of high standards. This means there is less public patience for inefficient or misdirected policymaking and provision of services.

With this in mind, political leaders and civil servants have to be able to evaluate policies using the most contemporary tools and methods available. What is more, all governments struggle to match the public demand for entitlements and infrastructure with available resources. Reconciling scarce resources with ever growing public demands is a core political challenge for all governments, wherever they may be.

Recent work in the United States and Europe on public behaviour helps policymakers understand better the likely reaction to new programmes, be they social, environmental or economic.

Even in a country as rich as the United States, providing social security and universal healthcare continues to be a challenge and also politically contentious. This was evident in the latest debate between members of the Democratic Party, who are vying to become its presidential candidate ahead of next year’s general elections. One of the issues debated on this week was whether to promote a sweeping government-run healthcare plan or to build on the already existing Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare”.

Secondly, the public has better ways to express its views. All over the world, social media is ubiquitous and unforgiving. Mistakes or poor service are quickly highlighted and telegraphed to the wider community; in fact, there are entire websites dedicated to criticising actions and policies of governments. And then there is mainstream media, which can be punishing as well. Hence, it goes without saying that civil servants need to understand how it works and how to deal with it.

Related to these trends has been the progressive digitisation of government. As we have seen in recent years, this can bring with it substantial efficiencies, better service for clients and dramatic improvements in productivity. But it also brings privacy challenges. Citizens can become uneasy about how their data is stored, managed and used. What is more, introducing digital systems is not straightforward. An example of this is the Indian government's implementation of Aadhaar, which is considered the world's largest biometric identification scheme but, nonetheless, has sparked concern among many civil society groups in the country about possible government overreach.

The US Capitol in Washington, DC, has over the years witnessed many a debate on the viability of 'Obamacare'. AFP
The US Capitol in Washington, DC, has over the years witnessed many a debate on the viability of 'Obamacare'. AFP

These days, policymakers – be they political leaders or civil servants – need to have an astute feel for how the restless public will react to government initiatives. There is a great deal more to public behaviour than supply and demand. Policies often fail because their architects did not accurately predict public response. Recent work in the United States and Europe on public behaviour helps policymakers understand better the likely reaction to new programmes, be they social, environmental or economic. This work is as relevant to the UAE as it is to anywhere else.

It is in this context that the announcement made by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, of the results of a survey of government customer service centres comes as good news. The reasons are twofold: firstly, it will help civil servants improve their performances and secondly, it will send a signal to the public that the government is working tirelessly not just to recognise the challenges it faces but also the solutions required.

We have all been struck by the increasingly acerbic nature of public debate. Whatever the reasons for it, we all need to contribute to creating more civil forms of dialogue. It is one thing to disagree with someone or with a government – or, for that matter, for governments to disagree with each other. But it makes sense to disagree politely. That is all the more possible if we learn to empathise with each other. That does not mean to sympathise. That is seldom possible. It means understanding the other person’s point of view and showing due respect.

All this points to one thing, which is the importance of educating present and aspiring civil servants on the various facets of public administration and management, some of which have already been listed.

There are already many universities which offer excellent courses in this regard. But few address these contemporary challenges which those in government face. We are trying to fill that gap by establishing a new International School for Government at King’s College London, which is both a challenge and privilege.

The challenge, of course, is to provide governments from across the globe the opportunity to upgrade the skillset of their policymakers and civil services with an emphasis on these contemporary governance issues. After all, it is important to allow governments to operate at the highest possible level and to assist civil servants and policymakers in developing their professional skills.

Courses also become more attractive if they are made accessible, which explains why many of them are online. And if they can emphasise the new issues people in government need to master, aside from just focusing on historical experiences, that is even better.

Alexander Downer, formerly Australia's minister for foreign affairs, is executive chair of the International School for Government at King’s College London. Annette Prandzioch was chief operating officer at the Royal Commonwealth Society

Updated: September 17, 2019 06:04 PM

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