In 2015, a friend of one of the authors met the mayor of a small Mediterranean town at a conference. The mayor was in a panic. One day, he had been contending with the quotidian challenges of running a sleepy seaside municipality; the next, he had several thousand refugees disembarking on the town’s beaches, with more arriving every week. He admitted that he had no idea what to do, or even how to find peers in other countries that had faced the same sort of challenge. With just a few days’ time to announce and enact a solution, he had resorted to searching the Internet—and asking people he met at conferences if they had any good ideas.

“Do you?” he asked this friend.

Such is the haphazard way in which policy is often made under pressure. From climate change and urbanization to inequality and the jobs lost to automation, today’s biggest problems are complex and connected. Yet by and large, public servants are still forced to try to solve them in silos and with scarce resources.

To better understand the extent and nature of the problem, we spent a year interviewing hundreds of people working in the local and national governments of more than 40 developed and developing countries. Our interviewees ranged from young innovators to ministers charged with reforming ossified departments. We asked them what factors limited their effectiveness and we found that a sizable number of their answers fell into a single category: a critical lack of connection—to ideas, to peers who have faced similar problems, and to partners who could help implement solutions.

This pattern, we learned, leads at best to the duplication of effort and avoidable taxpayer expense; at worst, it leads to the adoption of policies that have already proven to be ineffective, or to a failure to adopt good policies, at great cost to citizens’ lives and pockets. In a connected world, connected policymaking, with all its many benefits, remains an exception.

Vision Zero, an imaginative program that recently helped cut the number of road traffic deaths in New York to its lowest level since before the First World War, provides a good example. Vision Zero took 17 years to reach New York from Sweden, where it was invented. The program’s haphazard path to New York began in 2007, a full 10 years after it started, with the death of a young man in a bicycle crash on the Manhattan Bridge.

The young man’s father, a brewer, often travelled to Sweden on business, where he noticed that the streets were designed to protect cyclists and pedestrians as much as to be convenient for cars. After his son’s death, he arranged to meet one of Sweden's Vision Zero administrators. This meeting took place in 2009. Afterwards, he wrote an article for an advocacy group, which published a report on the Swedish policy in 2011. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a Vision Zero policy; he made the announcement in a Queens schoolyard, near where an eight-year-old boy had been hit by a truck. Today, two decades since Vision Zero’s invention, after countless avoidable deaths, the program is finally being taken on around the world.

The Archipelagos of Government

Our research found that “disconnection” falls into five, negatively reinforcing categories in the public sector; a closer look at these categories may help policy makers see the challenge before them more clearly:

1. Disconnected Governments

There is a truism in politics and government that all policy is local and context-dependent. Whether this was ever an accurate statement is questionable; it is certainly no longer. While all policy must ultimately be customized for local conditions, it absurd to assume there is little or nothing to learn from other countries. Three trends, in fact, indicate that solutions will become increasingly fungible between countries.

The first is that problems are becoming more global—think climate change, refugees, inequality, cyber security, terrorism, and artificial intelligence. The second: New technologies, new business models, and new financing mechanisms—all of which are inherently shareable—increasingly underpin solutions. The third is that people continue to move to cities and cities are much more like each other than countries.  

Less economically or socially similar countries may have less to learn from each other; at the same time, certain problem-solving insights will leapfrog established practices in dissimilar locales. A senior public official in one wealthy country government recently asked us if we had come across poor countries that had developed more cost-effective solutions to providing affordable credit. We are familiar with developing countries’ advances in mobile and solar technologies. The same is happening with innovative policies forged under constraints.  

2. Disconnected Issues

What climate change policy can endure without a job-creation strategy? What sensible criminal justice reform does not consider education? Yet even within countries, departments and their employees often remain as foreign to each other as do nations.

Even in the best-run countries, different government departments often have different networks, different jargon and, perhaps most destructively, different budgets. Budgets, once allocated, are spent down within that department. Budget allocation thus becomes a zero sum game. An education department may need to involve social services to help reduce poor school attendance. But even if there is a net saving if all the budget savings accrue to the education department, social services has little incentive to get involved.

3. Disconnected Public Servants

The isolation of governments, and of government departments, is caused by and reinforces the isolation of people working in government, who have few incentives—and plenty of disincentives—to share what they are working on.

Like most large institutions, government is risk averse. But unlike in corporations, there are few gains to be had in government even for those who take risks successfully. There is no financial reward. And with the media hungry for government-bashing stories, the penalties for failure are high. Even projects widely judged to be successful can be harshly critiqued; government is complicated, and policy decisions always necessitate trade-offs. It is thus often safer to be silent. But this silence comes at a high cost.

4. Disconnected Citizens

As Tiago Peixoto, a governance specialist at the World Bank, memorably told us: “Government without citizen engagement is like a restaurant without a menu.”

There are areas of increasingly visible progress in bridging the disconnections of government, citizen engagement being one. We’re still in the early stages, but private sector fashions such as human-centered design and design thinking have become government buzzwords. And platforms enabling new types of citizen engagement—from participatory budgeting to apps that people use to report potholes—are increasingly popping up around the world.

We are hopeful that this trend will ultimately drive more sharing between governments. When citizens in one country see what citizens in another country are getting from their governments—and have channels to demand the same from their representatives—governments are more likely to heed lessons from other countries.

5. Disconnected Ideas

According to the World Bank’s own data, one third of its reports are never read, even once. Foundations and academia pour tens of millions of dollars into policy research with few targeted channels to reach policymakers; they also tend to produce and deliver information in formats that policymakers don’t find useful. People in government, like everyone else, are frequently on their mobile phones, and short of time.

Worse, some information is never captured at all: the UK government (arguably one of the world’s better run governments) was recently losing £2.5 billion worth of reports it commissioned each year, leaving UK public servants to scour the Internet for ‘ghost’ records when they needed them.

And information, even if it does exist and even if it is read, is not enough. To properly adopt or adapt a policy, public servants need to talk to those with implementation experience—people who have experienced and overcome the hidden challenges of making things happen.  

Steps to Connection

The average OECD government spends about 40 percent of its GDP on government work (about $16 trillion). We estimate global total to be around $30 trillion. If more connected policymaking could help just 1 percent of total government spend be deployed 50 percent more effectively—a reasonable ambition we think—it would unlock well over $100 billion dollars a year globally of cost savings or value creation.

The conditions are ripe for this to happen, for the reasons outlined above and because millennials, who share by nature, are rising to senior government roles and demanding things be done differently. It won’t be easy. But there are many ways to start that do not even require major changes or reforms. Here are a few:

Broaden the government talent pool

Many of the most effective public servants we’ve met have spent time in the private sector or civil society. Confronted with: “This is how things have always been done,” they find a way to circumvent the system.

Protect talent  

Denmark’s innovative MindLab sends forward-thinking public servants out into the wilderness of its ministries to disrupt old-fashioned thinking. Doing so helps the ministries survive institutional inertia and resistance.

Communicate the upside of risk

Sweden’s innovation agency, Vinnova, makes it very clear upfront that it will get venture-capital-like failure rates on its bold, early-stage investments. Setting this expectation makes it much easier for the agency to share failures when they happen and to talk about (and implement) lessons learned.

Use money to drive collaboration   

Baltimore’s health department has had significant success with “global budgeting.”  Under this approach, hospitals are not paid according to the number of procedures they perform or patients they receive. Instead, they are given an annual budget and told to spend it how they wish. The logic is to incentivize hospitals to spend money more efficiently, by spending money on keeping people out of the hospital. In this way, it becomes cheaper for the health department to spend its money on collaborations with other departments that can keep people out of hospital. In the first year after the system was introduced in January 2014, it saved more than $100million in costs and lowered readmission rates faster than the national average.

Harness the best of tech to share and learn

We aim to be part of the solution on this front. So to complement and reinforce just these sorts of strategies, we created Apolitical—an online platform that connects public servants at all levels of government to people tackling the same problems elsewhere. Through Apolitical, we want to bring together ideas, people, and evidence in way that we hope encourages action.

Co-designed with public servants around the world, we built Apolitical’s online platform around the critical policy topics of our time. And inspired by the aesthetic and agility of consumer tech, we set out to make it as user-friendly and far-reaching as possible. It’s 2017. We think it’s intolerable that a traveler can find out whether a mattress they’re considering on the other side of the world is lumpy, but a public servant can’t find out about known lumps in a policy that could cost millions and change millions of lives.

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