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Re-imagining government

Insights In Depth: The future of government

The public sector is often seen as slow-moving and behind the times. But around the world, governments are creating innovative responses to seemingly intractable challenges. Join us as we dive into the exciting new developments in the future of government.

Tanya Ott: Hi. I’m Tanya Ott. And you don’t need me to tell you but … we’re all dealing with a lot right now …

News clips: “The science is scary, from what happens to the body under extreme heat to where we could be in a couple of decades.” “We've closed our orthopedic unit and turned it into a COVID unit. We closed our primary unit.” “There's so much death and you're working 12-hour days, non-stop.” “I hope the landlords don't become impatient and start evicting families. The power company turning clients off, I guess that's my greatest fear.” “It's targeting Black and Brown folks in my community, protesters in particular, people who stand up for voices that have been supressed and muted.” “I can't breathe! I can't breathe!”

Tanya: These problems are too massive and far-reaching for any one person or organization to solve—which is where government comes in. But government faces its own problems.

News clips: “In the old days, it used to be, 'All politicians are crooks, but my congressman is a good guy. I actually think cynicism now has reached a level that nobody is even confident their local guy is telling the truth.”“Perceptions of trust in government, according to the Pew Research Institute, are at an all-time low.” “At the end of the day, do you really believe that any individual in the whole government entity really cares about you as a human being, as a citizen? No!” “One of the particular problems in America is it's possible to make money by generating fake news and expreme opinions.”

Tanya: One of the biggest sticking points may not be what you expect.

Mike Canning: What has changed with government is expectations.

Tanya: That’s Deloitte’s Mike Canning.

Mike: I lead our government public services practice, and that includes federal, state, local, and higher education …

Tanya: The expectations Mike mentions—they’re set outside of the world of government.

Mike: Citizens have a whole lot higher expectations of service, of information, guidance … and a frustration when it doesn’t come as easily and as clearly as ordering something on Amazon or doing a quick Google search or doing another transaction with their bank that is so simple and straightforward. That’s the big challenge of government—how do you react in the time frame with the expectations that our citizens now have based on all the other experiences they have in their lives?

Tanya: We’ve become accustomed to things being frictionless in our lives as consumers—the “Buy now” button is always ready. There’s no equivalent in the world of government. But there’s a reason for that.

Mike: Government works in so many different silos that if you had put your information in a driver’s license site, you can’t expect that to necessarily show up in a registry for a vaccine or for unemployment benefit. That lack of seamlessness across government is very frustrating because in some of the other ways your browser will retain a record of you to make that one swipe purchase so much easier.

Bill Eggers: We really need a much more agile and adaptive government.

Tanya: That’s Bill Eggers.

Bill: I’m the executive director of Deloitte Center for Government Insights, which is a research center for Deloitte Public Sector practice.

Tanya: Bill has some ideas on how government can shift to meet these new expectations.

Bill: We really need to be putting humans first. It should become the gravitational center of all government work. You know, for example, rather than having programs that support families and communities after a natural disaster that are siloed by department, by funding and regulation, we really should reorient the lens to how the disaster victim experiences that life changing event and then the rebuilding process, and focus it around the actual families.

Tanya: Governments around the world are making strides in this area—in part due to something called anticipatory government.

Mike: We have the ability to anticipate individuals’ needs just as different online digital agencies spend a lot of time and effort predicting what you and I are going to buy next.

Tanya: What happens when anticipatory government takes hold?

Bill: Think about hospital data of a birth. It could trigger a birth certificate, a Social Security card, a health care record for the child, and a family allowance allowing payment to qualifying payments without that family having to do anything because the government already has that information. That’s already a reality in Estonia and Austria and other countries.

Mike: It can be as dramatic as, how do you anticipate the next pandemic based on all the sensing capabilities that are available in the world today, to anticipating small things like, your license is about to come up for renewal, [and] sending a poke out to someone saying, “You might want to take a look at that.”

We can also predict macro trends: storms, pandemics, other capabilities like that. [When] government takes the data and looks at predictors, it allows governments to react in advance of something happening.

Tanya: Just one problem. Like I said at the top, government is dealing with a lot! Handling a pandemic, confronting societal inequities, maintaining the peace, providing services, and just making sure the wheels don’t fall off … it’s a full slate. That doesn’t necessarily leave a lot of time for thinking about the future.

Bill: We hear that all the time. You know, “We don’t have time to actually focus on all of those things because we’re kind of drowning in what we’re doing today.” But that’s why governments need to be what we call a more two-gear, where you need leaders who are striving to both accomplish their missions now while also setting up for the future. We really shouldn’t be limiting modernization efforts to occasions when the agencies have the time or the budget or when a crisis or scandal forces an overhaul. They always need to be operating at both speeds along those lines and always focused on what are those future needs and how do we innovate.

In general, government change tends to be pretty slow. Most improvements are incorporated incrementally over time. But every once in a while you see more transformational changes occur.

Tanya: And Bill thinks that now may be one of those times.

Bill: 2020 could be looked at as a year when governments at all levels really reached an inflection point. When all of these driving forces that have been remaking our world prompted long-awaited and much-needed changes in the way government serves its citizens, like a fundamental change in the operating system of government. We’ve already seen a massive acceleration in certain trends because governments had to. Virtually overnight we transferred work to the cloud. We experimented with telehealth and online courts, adapted regulations on the fly and so on and so forth. We’ve seen this acceleration. The key thing is to continue that acceleration that’s been here, because government still remains behind the humanity that it serves. So it really must race to transform, especially in this very fast-changing world.

Tanya: That transformation is what we’ll be exploring over the course of this series. But before we dive into our conversations with the people on the ground at individual agencies, we wanted to take a look at some of the universal elements that apply no matter what function or department you’re looking at. Our guide for this is Sonal Shah.

Sonal: I am the former executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University. I now coordinate the technology and society initiatives at Georgetown University with the provost.

Tanya: She’s also someone who has plenty of experience with government itself. Like …

Sonal: In the Obama administration, I was deputy assistant to the president and ran the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation …

Tanya: And.

Sonal: I was national policy director for Pete Buttigieg, his presidential campaign …

Tanya: And.

Sonal: I was on the Biden-Harris campaign’s task force for the economy, really bringing together the Sanders team, the Biden team and other teams to put together a platform for the Democratic Party on what our economic message, our economic policies, and our economic pieces together would be.

Tanya: So it’s fair to say that she’s someone who believes that government can make a difference.

Sonal: This is the place where you have the greatest impact on people’s lives.

Tanya: Why does government have this slow-moving image?

Sonal: Two big things: One, government has to serve 330 million people around the country.

Tanya: While a fashion brand can target just 18-15-year-old women, or a restaurant can pitch at artisanal foodies, and an app developer can say this serves only left-handed golfers … government doesn’t have that luxury.

Sonal: Secondly, the role of government is to ensure that institutions and systems run in a long-term basis.

Tanya: Government can’t rebrand. It can’t pick a new audience. It can’t just decide it’s no longer serving a particular market.

Sonal: So, change in those types of spaces comes about slowly.

Tanya: And changes can have seismic effects. A motto in tech is “Fail fast and fail forward.” In other words, take risks, make mistakes, then learn from those mistakes as you go on. But in government …

Sonal: If you’re going to fail fast and forward, think through what that would mean if it fails. If we don’t get the stimulus checks right, it means X number of people don’t get access to their stimulus checks. You can’t afford that.

Tanya: All of that has meant that government tends to be cautious. And that’s not a bad thing! But as we’ve seen, the world is changing, and it’s changing fast. We run our lives with technology that didn’t even exist 15 or 10 or even 5 years ago. Social changes are snowballing. And there’s that whole global pandemic that’s thrown the need to move and adjust into stark relief.

How does government get more nimble? Sonal has some suggestions for where to start:

Sonal: Category one—People. We need a group of people that are coming in that have worked in nonprofits, businesses, other places that can actually bring in new ideas and really think through that.

Two—we need policymakers to not just think about policy as it will last for 10, 15, 20 years, but how do we use that information to make changes in policies and create adaptable policies and not such policies that it’s like if I write this, this is what it’s going to be in 20 years, because as we know, the world is changing dramatically.

And the third piece is really smartly using data to understand where shifts are taking place and knowing where we can use and make those shifts on a regular basis.

I’d probably add one more piece to that, which is partnerships. Government itself cannot solve all these problems. You do have to do this in partnership with business and the nonprofit community and civil society. It cannot be done by itself.

Tanya: How would Sonal make this happen?

Sonal: What I would love to see is the new administration really thinking about how they’re going to recruit a new generation of people into government. One of the things that has been clear and it’s been a trend that’s been happening, is a lot of people are retiring, especially out of the federal government. We need new energy. We need new thinking. We need new people. So I hope that each of the secretaries is thinking about how they’re going to recruit people. What kind of people are going to come work in government? What do we need for the future that we want to see—not just sort of fill slots and fill positions, but what kind of people do we want? People that have analytical skills, people that have data skills, people that may have technology backgrounds, people that think creatively, people that are problem solvers. So if you’re a policymaker or if you’re an assistant secretary and undersecretary, think about who are the people you’re recruiting?

Secondly, where are the places in your budgets that you can actually leave some money to do innovation and try things differently? Don’t just get stuck with, “This is the way we’ve been doing it, therefore, that’s what we should do,” because that’s the instinct of the institution. They will tell you, “Well, this is the way it’s been done. This is what Congress wants you to do. This is how you’ve been doing it.” We have an ability within that to think differently and to be super creative in bringing in your staff that does that.

Then finally, making sure that you’re doing those partnerships and you put as a priority for your staff to say, “We need to be thinking about partnerships differently and you need to come to me with ideas. What does that look like? How are we going to execute on it? What are the metrics by which we are going to measure that success?” Because it’s easy to think about innovation, but not have real metrics for success for ourselves and really putting that as a burden to make that happen, because if we do that, then we can actually move and shift to innovation and really be thinking differently about it. But if not, we’ll just sort of muddle along a little bit here, do a few projects there, but we won’t, at the scale of government, have done it at scale.

Tanya: That question of scale is key.

Sonal: What I have seen in government and the challenge in government is there [and] lots of really good pockets of innovation, but what we don’t get to [is] a scale of innovation. So how do we make sure that the pockets can also become the norm, as opposed to just staying as a pilot? What are the things that we should be doing? When I was in government in the Obama administration, that is the thing we really focused on is how do we test out ideas? How do we make sure things are being done and then how do you scale them? Linking the innovation to scale is actually the critical piece that government can do. It’s something that we don’t always talk about. We sort of either talk about innovation or scale, but not how that process happens.

Tanya: Bill Eggers has also been looking at this idea of scaling innovation.

Bill: We cataloged hundreds of examples of game-changing government innovations in different parts of the world. They’re just not scaled yet. I mean, some of these examples, in Estonia now taxpayers can file taxes online by simply approving forms that are auto populated with their income data. It takes about five minutes. This sort of represents the future of service delivery where you’re focused on the user, it’s automated from no touch government and it serves people without them ever having to fill out forms.

Tanya: Bill says keeping up with the technological and social changes in the world is key to making sure government can continue to function.

Bill: I’ve spent over 30 years now working on government reform in think tanks and government and at Deloitte. And a lot of the focus has been on looking around the corner. Where does government need to go? What shape does it need to be? Who does it need to work with? It’s really about making sure that government is keeping up with a lot of the changes in society and business and that government can continue to serve the needs of citizens and businesses in the most optimal way. You get into a pretty dangerous situation both from a citizen expectation standpoint and also people falling through the cracks and so on, if you have a government that starts falling behind a lot of the major changes in society and business.

Tanya: Government is about more than agencies and programs. It’s about mission—the mission to serve the people who need it most. And Mike Canning says that has been brought into stark relief as we weather the pandemic.

Mike: One of the most important things that government can do now is start looking at data, information, and insight, either health indicators, educational indicators, or something as simple as broadband access. You can’t have the type of remote education and all the other things we’ve learned out of COVID, can’t take advantage of that if you don’t have the basics in place. So government’s role going forward has to be the focus, the spotlight to shine on where those inequities are to serve those people in need.

Tanya: When we do shine that spotlight on those in need, we get a sense of the complexity and scope of the problems we’re facing. Take climate change: It’s going to take a lot more than just the government to make the changes we need to reduce carbon emissions and stop average global temperatures from rising. We need private industry, citizens, academia, NGOs, all working toward this goal.

Mike: What government can do here is set the ambitions and set what are the ideals and set the agreed upon ways: We’re going to look at and measure climate impact. And as simply as what GM recently did, state goals by 2035 they’re no longer going to produce fossil fuel–based engines—those are the types of ambitions that government can lay out and help drive toward. With that, the commercial market and industry will deliver on it.

Tanya: But how that message is delivered is also key.

Mike: The other thing about ambitions is they have to be simple. If you make them very complex, you make them difficult to understand. People can’t grasp on or worse yet, people can drive all different types of reasons why we can’t do something.

Tanya: Setting the ambitions—and setting them in a way we can understand and act on—is one way government can lead. But our next guest …

Geoff: Hi there, I’m Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan. I’m a professor at University College London in collective intelligence, public policy, and social innovation.

Tanya: There is precedent for this sort of grand reimagining of what we can be.

… thinks that government may have lost some of its ambition when it comes to lofty ideals. He wants us to think about not just what government can do, but what government should be.

Geoff spent quite a bit of time in the trenches of government—as director of policy at 10 Downing Street and as Director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair—and even more time in think tanks and academia. He even received a knighthood for services to the creative economy.

Geoff says the pandemic has given him plenty of food for thought.

Geoff: I’ve spent much of the last nine or 10 months working with governments around the world as they’ve been thrown into the deepest crisis in living memory. Although that’s been scary, it’s also been absolutely fascinating. All over the world, the challenges have been different in scale, but perhaps not different in nature. And the responses have been very different.

Tanya: Which governments are most notable for Geoff?

Geoff: The star performers over the last year have tended to be in East Asia, partly because they had the experience of SARS and MERS, but also because they had in some ways superior intelligence systems. In South Korea or Taiwan, they could bring together data from mobile phone companies, credit card transactions, as well as their own data to spot infections very, very quickly, to move very quickly to impose quarantines.

Tanya: That issue of intelligence-gathering is key to confronting new and emerging challenges.

Geoff: How does the government really know what is happening in a pandemic? How do they get the right data on infections and contacts and the spread of the pandemic? How do they understand what’s happening to the economy, to issues like mental health? To the public’s willingness to abide by new rules? This has been a huge challenge and we will see quite radical change in how governments organize their domestic intelligence in the future effort to deal with other things such as climate change and jobs and inequality.

One of the fascinating things we’ve seen on this intelligence organization is some countries, which probably we wouldn’t have in the past thought of as on the leading edge of government, have done a really good job. Bangladesh is an example. Nearly 200 million people, fantastic work bringing together data on infections, on the economy to try and minimize the harms. Countries like Vietnam, Senegal have done much better on paper than countries in Western Europe or North America, which appeared to have far stronger capabilities to govern. That’s in part because they’ve been smart in how they’ve organized this kind of domestic intelligence—some formal data, some from sensors and so on, but also gathering data from citizens. So they’re pooling, as it were, the collective intelligence of the society as they try to deal with the crisis.

Tanya: Governments have also had to discover new ways to confront unprecedented problems caused by the pandemic.

Geoff: All over the world, governments have had to invent new systems of direct support, financial support for families, for small businesses, for big businesses, and sectors. That will have a lasting effect on how welfare states of all kinds are organized.

Tanya: In order to have a lasting effect, governments need to make sure they’re not just reacting to a crisis—that they’re also thinking about the long haul. And that includes rethinking public finance.

Geoff: There’s a big mismatch between the methods government use and what’s actually needed now. If you’re a government and you’re investing in a road or an airport or something like that, you do detailed investment analysis on the costs and the returns, the paybacks you’ll get over 10, 20, 30 years. When it comes to people, governments generally have annual budgets for education, for health, for Social Security. And not surprisingly, they think in very short-termist ways, which are very, very inefficient when you’re essentially dealing with human beings. The fascinating thing, of course, now is that human beings last longer than physical infrastructures. Yet our public finance methods are about 50 years out of date.

Tanya: Such large-scale changes that touch so many different agencies may require the skills of a new sort of government worker.

Geoff: I haven’t quite got the right word for it, but I call it system architects. That’s people who can think of a whole system—like a criminal justice system or a transport system or perhaps democracy—and weave together the different elements needed in terms of data, technology platforms, but also human intelligence, human learning, human knowledge, human wisdom as well. It doesn’t have a name, this role. It’s on the boundaries of data and computer science, public administration, social sciences, and so on. In almost all the fields I’m working on, we’re missing those people. We have these roles divided between often fantastic data experts on the one hand and policy people over there and academics, but no one is bringing it all together in a systemic way. So I would love to see a new profession of system architects come into being and for them to be situated in the heart of governments, under ministers, prime ministers, secretaries, mayors and so on, and helping to weave together the intelligence which needs to become really the core of any future government.

Tanya: There is precedent for this sort of grand reimagining of what we can be.

Geoff: There’s a great tradition of governments trying to steer whole societies. In the 19th century, many had to steer to industrialize their countries. Japan, Germany and then later countries like Turkey, governments intervened in almost everything from dress codes and scripts to universal schooling and laws. Now, all of that went out of fashion a bit in the late 20th century as perhaps we wanted a slightly more minimal government keeping out of people’s hands, just providing services and letting society get on with things.

Tanya: But Geoff says some of the problems humanity is facing now could use more of a steady hand on the rudder.

Geoff: It’s clear in this century we need a bit more of that steering, particularly if we’re going to get to things like a net-zero economy with radically less use of carbon, which we have to do for climate change. Particularly perhaps to adapt to aging. If we’re going to have a much older society, we need to change all our norms and our policies, our ways of acting. In relation to AI and hugely powerful technologies, we again need government not just to regulate, but also to be a bit more involved in steering. You can see some of the leading-edge governments in the world thinking in these terms, the Scandinavians and the East Asians, New Zealand, Australia, and others.

Tanya: Just one problem.

Geoff: One of the big challenges, which is going to be very clear this year, is that, of course, you can’t steer unless you know where you’re steering to. So you have to have a sense of direction, some sense of imagination, some sense of what a desirable future might look like.

Tanya: And what we have here is a failure of imagination.

Geoff: If you talk to most pretty well-educated people or public servants or academics or business people around the world, they can picture things going wrong in the next few years, climate change, disaster, floods, droughts, fires, et cetera. We all have that picture in our head of the robots taking over the world and dominating humans. But you ask people, what’s your positive vision of a future government, a future welfare system, future health care, future criminal justice, a future democracy? Most people really struggle, and they struggle much more than they did 50 or 100 years ago. This is creating a problem for us now because although people have a picture of technology futures, possible future smart home, smart cities, AI, they don’t have a clear picture of where we might be able to head in a human way or as a society. Some governments around the world, like the New Zealanders and as so often the Scandinavians, but also others like Greece and Portugal, are trying to think ahead to rekindle positive social imagination. What could our society look like? What would it take to get us there, to a society perhaps where incomes are not stagnant for large groups, where there is less anxiety and mental illness, where we really are in balance with our ecology and our environment, where our education system is really aligned with what the world needs, where democracy actually uses the best of 21st century technologies. Most of our democracies are still stuck in 100 or even 200 years behind.

Once you’ve got a picture of where you’re heading to, then government with society can steer toward that picture. At its best, in the last 200 years, governments have done something very similar to that. This has happened all over the world. The reason why we now have dramatically lower child mortality, let’s say, than in the past, dramatically better prosperity and education and so on, is because of past successes in this kind of societal steering. But we need to rekindle the confidence in governments and politicians, that this is part of their job. They’re not just here to administer the present. They are here to help us prepare for not just the short-term future, but also the long-term future. They’re here to mobilize the best of their creativity and intelligence of their citizens to help get there.

Tanya: So that’s what we’ll be doing in this series. We’re talking to the people who are imagining the future of government right now, in real time. We’ll hear how the Secret Service transitioned from foiling stagecoach heists to policing Bitcoin, and how NASA managed to put a new rover on Mars when a good chunk of their workforce was working from home. We’ll learn what it takes to regain trust after a fall, and talk to the man who helped turn the VA around and push its approval ratings to 90%. We’ll examine how AI can be used to protect the homeland, and how it may be able to promote racial equity. We’ll look at how governments are delivering services to their citizens, including one country that makes even the most arduous chores nearly painless. We’ll dive into what it will take to allow government regulations to keep pace with technologies and societal issues that are evolving at a breakneck pace. Through it all, we’ll be looking at how government can keep up with the breakneck pace of change.

Bill: We’ve laid out a number of shifts that are going to be key to enable governments to thrive in the future.

Tanya: These shifts are constants that we’ve seen cropping up again and again over the course of our interviews. Like …

Bill: Governments should be open. That means they should be solving problems by tapping into external ecosystems, because there’s always going to be more innovation outside any organization than there is inside. So they need dedicated structures for engaging these external ecosystems and for embracing ideas in procurement from a whole diverse range of providers.

Tanya: And …

Bill: Governments are going to need to be tech instinctive and not reactive ... To be not a tech follower, but actually the leader in some of these areas. That means government leaders should have someone out ahead who’s searching for technologies and ideas that can really power the future so public institutions have more time to prepare.

Tanya: Because public institutions do indeed need to prepare. The good news is, they know that.

Tanya: Making that future accessible to everyone is one of the goals of good government. And Bill says there’s plenty of reason for hope:

Bill: The number of absolutely brilliant public servants who are doing this because they care about the mission and they’re doing it for less money than they could make in the private sector —that’s the thing that people probably don’t understand as well as they need to. At the end of the series, I hope people will have heard our podcast and be much more optimistic about government and hear the stories of these amazing government leaders who are actually at the forefront of taking us into the future of government.

Tanya: I hope you join us as we dive into this optimistic future. Next week, we’ll be talking about the future of work in government—and one of our guests wants us to think big.

Angie Bailey: Forget the word work. What does the future look like? Where does everything fit in into all of that? And how do we prepare ourselves to be ready for that?

Tanya: That’s all coming up on Insights In Depth: The Future of Government. Subscribe on your podcatcher of choice, and check us out at

You can also connect with us on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight. I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1.

We want to thank pubic radio station WBHM in Birmingham, AL, for some of the audio you heard at the top of the show.

I am Tanya Ott. Have a great day!

This podcast is produced by Deloitte. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte. This podcast provides general information only and is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to

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