From talk to action: what impact delegates in Davos can make


World Economic Forum 2016 hosted in Davos this week.
World Economic Forum 2016 hosted in Davos this week.

Few events exert a more magnetic allure for senior figures than the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Every January, policymakers and business leaders, philanthropists and top academics, head to the Swiss resort to engage in a few days of debate on issues pivotal to the global economy and body politic. Diaries are cleared, meetings booked and speeches prepared — and Australia is no exception …

A planet in motion

This year’s event, which will also be attended by The Boston Consulting Group and the Centre for Public Impact, is focusing on our rapidly transforming world. There is certainly is no shortage of issues to address — Middle East instability; the worst refugee crisis in living memory; geopolitical divisions and fluctuating global growth all spring to mind. But the changes don’t stop there.

We are also poised to enter an era of disruptive transformation — what WEF is calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution — where nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and genetic technologies will help make the impossible possible.

“Digital technology is also being increasingly deployed to build flexible services around the needs of users …”

To their credit, governments are also seeking to move with the times. Techniques such as behavioural insights are becoming more widespread and new units known as “labs”, made up of specialist teams dedicated to creating new and better solutions for citizens, are also enjoying increasing prevalence in governments worldwide.

Digital technology is also being increasingly deployed to build flexible services around the needs of users, yet there is always more to do. One of the research streams at the Centre for Public Impact is the disruptive impact of digital technology on policymaking, drawing on how advances in big data and advanced analytics are challenging the traditional logic of devolution, marketisation and privatisation in public services.

We are also working alongside colleagues at the UK’s Cabinet Office to create LaunchPad, a new initiative that brought together experts in artificial intelligence, robotics and data science with civil servants to see how such advances could help progress ideas in government. Centre for Public Impact executive director Adrian Brown explored how advances in big data and advanced analytics are challenging the traditional logic of devolution, marketisation and privatisation in public services.

Stand and deliver

One thing that stays constant for policymakers the world over, though, is the need for results. Citizens expect them. The media demands them. And governments hunt high and low for them. But it’s not easy. Budgetary pressures continue to afflict many administrations; the public arena echoes to the sound of divergent voices and ideologies; and the pressure for daily decisions and urgent responses is unrelenting.

But if expectations are not met, legitimacy declines. Governments need to be able to demonstrate their impact and how citizens benefit — from education and healthcare to transport. But in many countries in the world there is frustration. Frustration that public services aren’t matching expectations. Frustration that taxpayers’ money is being wasted.

This frustration builds. It generates cynicism with the political process and democracy more generally. No wonder that confidence in national governments declined from an average of 45% to just 40% between 2007 and 2014, according to the OECD. This underlines what the Centre for Public Impact calls the “impact imperative”.

So, what can be done?

To really make sure that promises and pledges are met requires “delivery” to be woven deeply through the tapestry that is modern policymaking. Rather than just creating a delivery unit and hoping for the best, policymakers should instead step back and fundamentally reassess how to turn ideas into impact.

Keeping things ticking over and avoiding press criticism may give the appearance of delivery but won’t achieve much in the long run. Instead, ambitious goals will encourage the formation of new approaches but there is an important balance to be struck. Focusing on the details to grind out improvements — those incremental gains so beloved of sporting luminaries such as the UK’s cycling chief, Sir Dave Brailsford — is equally important.

“This availability of data and performance metrics is only going to accelerate in the years to come …”

Thankfully, there is now a vast amount of performance data to help them, and this is where huge improvements can take flight. At the World Bank, for example, data relating to some priorities is collected every quarter or even more frequently, and this ensures regular iteration and adaptation. The information is then published on an external website to boost transparency. The more data is shared the better, as it enables more people to track, share and learn together — strengthening outcomes in the process.

This availability of data and performance metrics is only going to accelerate in the years to come — that’s one thing we can be sure of. Another is that the changes that surround us today will continue to proliferate and accelerate. This can be unsettling – change often is — but Australia’s policymakers and their fellow delegates at Davos this week should remember that they also possess a huge opportunity to do good. To push boundaries. To improve the lives of citizens the world over.

Achieving positive change is by no means straightforward but it can be done. The Prime Minister’s innovation statement and data policy released just before Christmas are a good starting point. The appointment of former PM&C Secretary Ian Watt to lead an implementation unit should also help reduce the implementation risk. The ultimate test will be whether the words on the page lead to change on the ground. It tends to be fairly quiet in January, especially in Canberra, but there are many challenges to deal with so it’s time to get back to work — at Davos and beyond.

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