Beyond the numbers: The qualitative research behind our reports

Tamara Krawchenko, Regional Development Policy Division, Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Local Development and Tourism

Brainstorming ideas at a public event in Prague (7 June 2016) that was held as part of our work on the Governance of Land Use in the Czech Republic.

The OECD is known for data and numbers. Indeed, providing high quality comparative indicators for better policy making is our bread and butter. But, what is less known is the extent to which we are a “listening” organisation, and how this improves the qualitative research that goes into our work. While the sources behind the OECD’s statistical data are critical, they become alive thanks to the rich opinions and experiences of real people.

Drawing on my own experiences conducting OECD reports I can say that they include rigorous qualitative data collection from unstructured or semi-structured interviews, focus groups and even public engagement events. In our work, we have the chance to meet a wide range of people at the local level—from farmers in Podlaskie in eastern Poland, to urban bike activists in Amsterdam and property developers in Prague—these local interviews give us data on the conditions that people experience, how institutions structure individual behaviour and how people would like to influence or change policy themselves. Experts from other countries also take part as peers to review our studies, providing another source of knowledge and policy learning.

At our public events we talk and listen to people from all backgrounds about the key challenges they face and we ask them for their ideas on how to improve everything from building approval processes to the quality of public space. In Prague, for instance, about 50 people from the community came out to speak with us one night. We took a hard look at the low levels of trust between community members, developers, and city officials and we brainstormed ways to rebuild it. In Amsterdam we had lively discussions about the redevelopment of disused brownfield sites within the city,  and their ambitions to embrace a “circular economy” in which materials would be reused or recycled rather than creating new goods or disposing of old ones. We heard about non-government organisations (NGOs) that have worked between developers and residents on big projects that have the potential to transform whole neighbourhoods. These in-depth discussions, which are all non-attributable, have nevertheless enriched our reports and even helped shape our arguments.

These encounters make a real difference to our work. While quantitative data gives a bird’s eye view and helps to monitor change over time, our research interviews provide context (including historical context) and help us better understand general trends, missing links and political debates. Interviews help us see how policy unfolds and where improvements can be made. They also give us insights into reform agendas and their implementation on the ground. Finally, they show us how different interests intersect and affect the policy-making process. Given the importance of this knowledge to our work, the OECD should be known for more than just numbers.

For more information about the OECD’s work on this topic see: 

Out of complexity, a third way?

Bill Below, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

The perennial curmudgeon H.L. Mencken is famously misquoted as saying: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The ability to simplify is of course one of our strengths as humans. As a species, we might just as well have been called homo reductor—after all, to think is to find patterns and organize complexity, to reduce it to actionable options or spin it into purposeful things. Behavioural economists have identified a multitude of short-cuts we use to reduce complex situations into actionable information. These hard-wired tricks, or heuristics, allow us to make decisions on the fly, providing quick answers to questions such as ‘should I trust you?’, or ‘Is it better to cash in now, or hold out for more later?’ Are these tricks reliable? Not always. A little due diligence never hurts when listening to one’s gut instincts, and the value of identifying heuristics is in part to understand the limits of their usefulness and the potential blind spots they create. The point is, there is no shortage of solutions to problems, whether we generate them ourselves or receive them from experts. And there’s no dearth of action plans and policies built on them. So, the issue isn’t so much how do we find answers?—we seem to have little trouble doing that. The real question is, how do we get to the right answers, particularly in the face of unrelenting complexity?

There’s a nomenclature in the hierarchy of complexity as well as proper and improper ways of going about problem solving at each level. This is presented in the new publication “From Transactional to Strategic: Systems Approaches to Public Challenges” (OECD, 2017), a survey of strategic systems thinking in the public sector. Developed by IBM in the 2000s, the Cynefin Framework posits four levels of systems complexity: obvious, complicated, complex and chaotic. Obvious challenges imply obvious answers. But the next two levels are less obvious. While we tend to use the adjectives ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ interchangeably, the framework imposes a formal distinction. Complicated systems/issues have at least one answer and are characterised by causal relationships (although sometimes hidden at first). Complex systems are in constant flux. In complicated systems, we know what we don’t know (known unknowns) and apply our expertise to fill in the gaps. In complex systems, we don’t know what we don’t know (unknown unknowns) and cause and effect relations can only be deduced after the fact. That doesn’t mean one can’t make inroads into understanding and even shaping a complex system, but you need to use methods adapted to the challenge. A common bias is to mistake complexity for mere complication. The result is overconfidence that a solution is just around the corner and the wrong choice of tools.

Unfortunately, mismatches between organisational structures and problem structures are common. For example, in medicine, without proper coordination, two specialists can work at cross-purposes on a single client. While the endocrinologist treats the patient’s hyperglycaemia (a complicated system) with pharmaceuticals and diet, the nephrologist might treat her kidney failure (also a complicated system) through a separate set of pharmaceuticals and dietary recommendations. Not only can these two pursuits be at odds (what may be good for the kidneys may be bad for blood sugar, for example), but both treatments can have effects on other systems of the body that may go unmonitored. Understanding these interactions and those of each treatment on the body’s individual systems as well as on the body as a joined up, holistic entity (which it certainly is) would be the broader, complex and more desirable goal.

The body politic may not be so different. Institutions have specific and sometimes rather narrow remits and often act without a broader vision of what other institutions are doing or planning. Each institution may have its specific expertise yet few opportunities for sustained, trans-agency approaches to solving complex issues.

Thus, top-down, command-and-control institutional structures breed their own resistance to the kind of holistic, whole-of-government approach that complex problems and systems thinking require. This may be an artefact of the need for structures that adapt efficiently to new mandates in the form of political appointees overseeing a stable core of professional civil servants. Also, the presence of elected or appointed officials at the top of clearly defined government institutions may be emblematic of the will of the people being heard.  Structural resistance may also stem from competitive political cycles, discouraging candidates to engage in cycle-spanning, intertemporal trade-offs or commit to projects with complex milestones. In a world of sound-bites, fake news and scorched earth tactics, a reasoned, methodical and open-ended systems approach can be a large, slow-moving political target.

And that’s the challenge of approaching complex, ‘wicked’ problems with the appropriate institutional support and scale—there must be fewer sweeping revolutions or cries of total failure by the opposition. Disruption gives way to continuous progress as the complex system evolves from within. It is a kind of third way that eschews polarization and favors collaboration, that blends market principles with what might be called ‘state guidance’ rather than top-down intervention.

Global warming, policies for ageing populations, child protection services and transportation management are all examples of complex systems and challenges.  To take the last example, in the US, traffic congestion is estimated to cost households USD 120 billion per year and 30 billion to businesses (OECD, 2016). But where to start? With a massive infrastructure building spree? Where would you add additional capacity? How much would you invest in roads, and how much in pubic transportation? What are the relative advantages of toll roads vs increases in gas or vehicle taxes? What are the likely effects of gas price fluctuations and the onset of fleets of electric, self-driving cars? What about the technologies that have yet to be invented? And what will be the impact of policies on income inequality, gender equality, the environment and well-being? Finally, how do you efficiently join up levels of government and all the stakeholders potentially involved?

Complex systems are hard to define at the outset and open ended in scope. They can only be gradually altered, component by component, sub-system by sub-system, by learning from multiple feedback loops, measuring what works and evaluating how much closer it takes you to your goals.

General Systems Theory (GST), that is, thinking about what is characteristic of systems themselves, sprang from a bold new technological era in which individual fields of engineering were no longer sufficient to master the breathtaking range of knowledge and skills required by emerging systems integration. That know-how gave us complex entities as fearful as the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and as inspiring as manned space flight. Today, the world seems to be suffering from complexity fatigue, whose symptoms are a longing for simple answers and a world free of interdependencies, with clear good guys and bad guys and brash, unyielding voices that ‘tell it like it is’, a world with lines drawn, walls built and borders closed. Bringing back a sense of excitement and purpose in mastering complexity may be the first ‘wicked’ problem we should tackle.

In the meantime, we need to find a way to stop approaching complex challenges through the limits of our institutions and start approaching them through the contours of the challenges themselves. Otherwise too many important decisions will be clear, simple and wrong.

Useful links

OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation

OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

Comparing Governments for Long Term Threats and Complex Challenges (OECD, 2016)

Building a Government For the Future: Survey of Strategic, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector  (OECD 2013)

Prospects for Global Governance

NAECRon Gass, former OECD Director, based on a paper prepared for today’s NAEC seminar on The Creative Society and Technology

A world society is emerging where nation states are dominant, but in a complex, multi-polar world in which the poles – including business, civil society, and multilateral agencies – are developing various forms of power through alliances and shared objectives (or even common enemies). In the global system that is emerging, economic growth and the technological advances that underpin it have to be geared to meet human ends. Global governance has to be built on three pillars which reflect this complexity: political vision; realistic goals; and operational strategies.

This is the sense of the UN Human Development approach, the OECD Better Life Initiative, and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to which the G20 Hangzhou consensus lends support. Is the vision of global leadership as expressed by these bodies adequate to steer the world community out of the enduring crisis?

The 2030 Agenda implies a new relationship between the economy, nature, and society, and as such it has caught the mainstream political parties off balance. The Right is mainly on the economic leg; the Left on the social leg; the Greens on the ecological leg. The result is that the policy-making institutions, politically neutral, have a special responsibility. The OECD, in the nascent coalition of multi-lateral agencies, has the advantage of having pioneered its triangular policy paradigm almost since its foundation. This is now becoming a tripod, with governance at its apex.

The heart of the policy problem is that the economic, social and ecological systems have different logics. This means that policy coherence is both increasingly important and increasingly difficult. It has to be sought at all levels of decision-making, right down to cities and local communities where it is easier to achieve concertation between the stakeholders. At the level of the macro debate, policy coherence is complicated by the fact that the policy sciences are, by their very nature, silos. Economic, ecological, and social theory do not readily mix. Policy-makers can only get at the massive structural problems of today by systemic reforms which cross the boundaries of ministerial departments and the policy sciences. That is why systems thinking is needed for policy coherence.

This mutation in policy-making will not succeed if it remains the affair of a policy-making elite. Already, something like a popular movement appears to be building up. Way ahead of the policy-makers and the academics, people in cities, towns, and villages across the world are responding to the sustainability movement. For necessity is the mother of invention – as reflected in protest movements to avert climate disaster and to resist expropriation from historic “commons”.

Given the complexity of the goals of global governance, the leadership needs to explore the implications of alternative scenarios (futures) as a guide to today’s decisions. In that sense it has a pedagogical role, even rhetorical, since it engages in a “conversation” in and around possible decisions. Given the turbulence of the geo-political and geo-economic scene, its role is likely to become more important as predicting the future becomes more difficult while creating it becomes more necessary. And faced with the complex web of interactions between the SDGs, the context in which policies are formulated is vital. Success will depend on the extent to which, for example, “centres of government” are willing to collaborate.

There are two consequences. First, certain “chunks” of the SDG map are forced onto the policy agenda by the geo-political and geo-economic context. This is the case of the impressive commitments made at the G20 Hangzhou Summit, for example with regard to “a globally fair and modern international tax system”, green financing, energy collaboration, climate, inclusive and interconnected development, and illicit financial flows.

The second contextual reality is the need to pursue action in real-world decision-making contexts, national and sub-national. This is where the OECD can make a considerable contribution, because of its long-standing tradition of peer reviews, now extending down to the city, regional and local levels of public policy. The Multi-Dimensional Country Reviews of the OECD Development Centre are of particular interest in this regard.

Given the long and rocky road to the SDGs, regular monitoring of achievements and failures will be vital. This involves the publication of statistical indicators, an area in which the OECD has an important role to play. But more is at stake because sustainable development reflects a shift in opinion across the world. Policy-makers and citizens are in effect learning their way into the future, and emulation is an important stimulant for progress.

Progress is linked to security. After World War II, NATO and the OECD were the two arms of the Western strategy to provide security and prosperity. European economic and social progress was seen as the bulwark against Soviet communism, and the Marshall Plan was the instrument. Progress and security were thus linked. Today the progress-security nexus is quite different. The challenge of world progress – reconciling economy, nature and society – is much more complex. The security threats are more diffuse, ranging from nuclear conflict to climate change and terrorism.

The people of the world are now faced with living together on a finite planet, in an ever-expanding universe that they are beginning to explore. The fundamental challenge facing global governance is whether security risks and threats will undermine and overwhelm the immense power for progress that the new technological revolution brings. The SDGs can be part of the response if sustainable development, the Brundtland vision, becomes a popular movement. So too can the Hangzhou consensus, if the commitment of the major G20 powers to the SDGs extends to peace and security aspects of the UN 2030 Agenda.

The hope that this will be the case depends on whether, despite a certain amount of sabre rattling, a complementary force to economic interdependence is on the move. The great historical civilisations now appear to be embarked on a global process of convergence/competition. Interaction and mutual fertilisation in philosophy, culture, sport, education and travel are all everyday realities for the connected peoples of the world. On this fertile soil, a new global humanism could, in the long run, be the best shield against xenophobia, populism, and terrorism.

Useful links

The creative society and the new technological revolution Issues paper by Ron Gass

50 Years of reconciling the economy, nature and society Ron Gass, OECD Yearbook 2011

NAEC and the Sustainable Development Goals: The Way Forward Mathilde Mesnard, OECD Insights

It’s not just the economy: society is a complex system too Gabriela Ramos, OECD Insights

Indonesia, open government and the SDGs

open-gov-indonesiaLuiz de Mello, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

The approval of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 provides a useful occasion to explore how countries’ multi-lateral reform and development initiatives, such as those in the areas of open government, can support and advance the ambitious aims of the SDGs. Linking the SDGs to broad public administration reforms will be particularly important given their complexity; consisting of 17 goals and 169 targets, they cover a wide range of topics that will help shape countries’ priorities for public governance reform in the coming years.

Indeed, this is particularly relevant for Indonesia. As the country is both a founding member of the Open Government Partnership and simultaneously played a leading role in the United Nations Post-2015 development design, Indonesia is well placed to be a strong advocate for open government reforms, and to link such reforms to other multi-lateral reform efforts.

The SDGs deepen and expand upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and set out an ambitious agenda that aspires to be universal, integrated, and transformational. The aims of the SDGs therefore reinforce the need for cross-cutting and effective governance. Goal 16, in particular, reflects this consideration by promoting inclusive societies for sustainable development and seeking to build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels – many of the same goals that open government principles seek to achieve.

Open government policies can support both the substance of SDGs implementation (by directly contributing to the achievement of the goals) as well as to the process by which countries pursue the SDGs (namely, during their design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation).

How countries are already working towards Goal 16: what OECD data tells us

Open government policies and principles are most notably relevant to a number of the substantive targets found in Goal 16, such as those that concern the development of effective, accountable and transparent institutions (16.6), the promotion of responsive, inclusive, participatory decision making (16.7) and the expansion of access to information (16.10). Transparency, inclusion and responsiveness are indeed main characteristics of open government reforms, and OECD research and policy reviews have highlighted their role in promoting good governance.

For example, the OECD Survey on Open Government found that 88% of all survey respondents, including Indonesia, claimed that one of the key objectives they hope to achieve by implementing open government initiatives is to improve the transparency of the public sector, thereby directly supporting Target 16.10. Additionally, 73% of respondents claimed that a key goal of their open government initiatives is to improve the accountability of the public sector, responding directly to the objectives laid out in Target 16.6 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Objectives of countries’ open government strategies


Source: OECD (forthcoming), Open Government: The Global Context and the Way Forward, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris

The survey also shows that many countries are already pursuing activities to increase inclusivity, another key component of Goal 16. For example, 67% of respondents have implemented citizen consultation initiatives, and 71% are involving citizens in policymaking. In addition, 58% of the countries involve citizens in service design, and half provide for citizen participation in service delivery (see Figure 2). Together, these initiatives provide governments with feedback and new ideas and allow stakeholders to offer inputs, thereby enhancing both the quality and capacity of policies to achieve the intended outcome.

Figure 2: Open Government initiatives with a focus on public engagement


Source: OECD (forthcoming), Open Government: The Global Context and the Way Forward, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris

Examples from Indonesia

For its part, Indonesia has already made important progress in pursuing the kind of initiatives necessary to realise the governance targets laid out in Goal 16 and to support the process for inclusive design, implementation and monitoring of all SDGs. For example, through its creation of a National SDG Secretariat in 2016 and the establishment of the National Open Government Secretariat in 2015 (which built on previous government initiatives to support open government reforms), Indonesia has already put in place important institutional support structures.

The government has supported transparency and participation through legal protections for whistleblowers and the establishment of Pejabat Pengelola Informasi & Dokumentasi (Documentation and Information Management Offices, or PPID), which serve as essential public resources to handle requests for information. Indonesia has already established 694 offices throughout the country, with more on the way. Indonesia has also made rapid advancements in its ability to engage civil society in public affairs via its participatory forums for national and local development planning (Musrenbang) and a national online complaint management tool (LAPOR). As of September 2015, LAPOR had over 300,000 users, receiving 800 reports per day, thereby illustrating the widespread reach and interest in connecting the public and its government to solve practical challenges.

Additionally, the Widodo administration has supported programs that share the spirit and principles of open government that simultaneously help to achieve the SDGs beyond Goal 16. For example, the Pencerah Nusantara and Nusantara Sehat programs – originally established to support the MDGs – seek to improve the quality of life for people living in remote areas with limited access to health facilities. By training community members to provide such services and expanding the pool of healthcare providers, the program contributes to Goal 3, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all. The program has already improved the health of around 133,000 people. In this case, by applying the open government principle of citizen engagement to encourage a broader range of the population, especially young and rural Indonesians, to become involved, Indonesia is creating a more inclusive society.

The way forward

Other countries can learn from Indonesia’s experience, and Indonesia itself can expand upon its successes. As a way forward, countries seeking to support their various multilateral initiatives by linking open government and the SDGs could focus on:

  • Continuing to develop the links between open government reforms and the design and implementation of the SDGs. In Indonesia, this could include supporting additional institutional collaboration between the National SDG Secretariat and National Open Government Secretariat. During consultation events for the development of the National Action Plans, furthermore, the sustainable development goals can be explained in the context of open government and each commitment in the National Action Plan can be linked with the relevant SDG goal or target (as Macedonia has done in its Third National Action Plan). This will help ensure coherence between the two initiatives and will facilitate joint monitoring of the progress and results.
  • Promoting the use of open data for reporting on SDG achievements (see, for example, Mexico’s open data portal designed to track the SDGs). This would not only support the role of CSOs as watchdogs, but it would foster the reuse of public-sector information in a way that is relevant for the implementation of the SDGs.
  • Increasing the involvement of citizens in the policy cycle of the SDGs to ensure that the initiatives are inclusive and that they fully reflect public needs.

The above-mentioned recommendations are included in the OECD Open Government Review of Indonesia, launched by the OECD Secretary-General on October 24, 2016, in Jakarta. The Review highlights the achievements of Indonesia in the field of open government and SDGs, as well as the country’s remaining challenges. Ultimately, by promoting transparency, accountability and participation, the Review has helped to identify how countries can use open government principles to inform their implementation of the SDGs in such a way that meets the broad range of targets.

Useful links

OECD & Open Government

OECD Open Government Reviews

Sustainable Development Goals and Public Governance

OECD & Open Government Data

Trust in Government

OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

Governing Education in a Complex World

NAECTracey Burns, Project Leader, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The famous slogan “KISS” urges listeners to “Keep it simple, stupid!” However, modern policy making is increasingly discovering that not keeping it simple – in fact, embracing the complex – is essential to understanding contemporary systems and making reform work.

Modern societies are made up of a growing number of diverse stakeholders who collaborate through formal and informal channels. The rapid advancement and reach of information and communication technologies has enabled them to play a much more immediate role in decision-making while at the same time the delivery of public services has become more decentralised.

This complexity brings a series of dynamics that the traditional policy cycle is not able to capture. This is not startling news: numerous critics have described the inadequacy of the traditional policy cycle in agriculture, medicine, and education for the last 30 years. What has changed, however, is a growing understanding across a much broader set of actors that we can no longer continue to operate using traditional linear models of reform.

This is not just a theoretical discussion: ignoring the dynamic nature of the governance process makes reform less effective. In education for instance, even very similar schools can react quite differently to the same intervention. A case study of the Netherlands demonstrated how some weak schools benefitted from being labelled as in need of improvement, coming together as a school community to set off a virtuous cycle to improve performance. In contrast other schools struggled when faced with the same label, with some descending into vicious cycles where teachers felt unmotivated, parents moved their children to another school, and overall performance declined. A simple model of reform and governance cannot account for this complexity.

How can complexity be identified? A seminal 2002 paper by Glouberman and Zimmerman distinguishes between three types of problems: the simple, the complicated, and the complex. A simple problem is, for example, baking a cake. For a first time baker, this is not easy, but with a recipe and the ingredients you can be relatively sure that you will succeed. Expertise here is helpful, but not required.

In contrast, a complicated problem would be sending a rocket to the moon. Here, formulas are essential and high level expertise is not only helpful, but necessary. However, rockets are similar to each other in critical ways, and once you have solved the original complicated problem, you can be reasonably certain that you’ll be able to do it again.

Both simple and complicated problems can be contrasted with a complex problem, such as raising a child. As every parent knows, there is no recipe or formula that will ensure success. Bringing up one child provides useful experience, but it is no guarantee of success with another. This is because each child is unique and sometimes unpredictable. Solutions that may work in one case may only partially work, or not work at all, in another.

Returning to the failing school example, it was the unpredictability of the dynamics inherent in the response of the schools and their communities that rendered the problem complex as opposed to merely complicated. Acknowledging the complexity inherent in modern governance is thus an essential first step to effective reform. Successful modern governance:

  • Focuses on processes, not structures. Almost all governance structures can be successful under the right conditions. The number of levels, and the power at each level, is not what makes or breaks a good system. Rather, it is the strength of the alignment across the system, the involvement of actors, and the processes underlying governance and reform.
  • Is flexible and able to adapt to change and unexpected events. Strengthening a system’s ability to learn from feedback is a fundamental part of this process, and is also a necessary step to quality assurance and accountability.
  • Works through building capacity, stakeholder involvement and open dialogue. However it is not rudderless: involvement of a broader range of stakeholders only works when there is a strategic vision and set of processes to harness their ideas and input.
  • Requires a whole of system approach. This requires aligning policies, roles and responsibilities to improve efficiency and reduce potential overlap or conflict (e.g. between accountability and trust, or innovation and risk-avoidance).
  • Harnesses evidence and research to inform policy and reform. A strong knowledge system combines descriptive system data, research findings and practitioner knowledge. The key is knowing what to use, why and how.

Creating the open, dynamic and strategic governance systems necessary for governing complex systems is not easy. Modern governance must be able to juggle the dynamism and complexity at the same time as it steers a clear course towards established goals. And with limited financial resources it must do this as efficiently as possible. Although a challenging task, it is a necessary one.

Useful links

The Simple, the Complicated, and the Complex: Educational Reform through the Lens of Complexity Theory

Governing Education in a Complex World

Education Governance in Action: Lessons from Case Studies

The OECD is organising a Workshop on Complexity and Policy, 29-30 September, OECD HQ, Paris, along with the European Commission and INET. Watch the webcast: 29/09 morning29/09 afternoon30/09 morning

Digital Transformation in Chile: A roadmap to strengthen its governance

Digital chileBarbara Ubaldi, Senior Project Manager at the OECD leading the work on digital government and open government data (@BarbaraUbaldi) and Rodrigo Mejía Ricart, Junior Policy Analyst at the OECD (@rodrigoamrc)

The digital revolution has drastically changed societies. People work and relate on the move. We are now able to interact, access information and services by touching a screen that fits our hands. For over 15 years now, specialists have looked for the best ways to leverage the power of new technologies to make governments more efficient and effective. The evidence points towards a horizon of endless possibilities: higher productivity, more convenient services, greater transparency and accountability, improved data management for evidence-based policies, inclusive and cost-effective decision-making processes, among many other benefits. The practice, however, shows it is easier said than done.

Governments have made strenuous efforts, yet the expected benefits have not always been met. Besides, are governments really offering digital services and answers that better respond to users’ demands and needs?  Duplication of efforts, poor investment decisions, incoherent use of technologies, inadequate flows of information and lack of engagement of service users lead to overall digital fragmentation. These are common challenges among OECD and non-OECD member countries and more often than not they are the result of one single (yet not so simple) thing: inadequate governance.

Governance determines the decision-making process, how priorities are set and executed and how resources are allocated. It is the most basic and fundamental enabler of government activities in all policy areas. It is also the framework that allows governments to drive change, adapt to new realities and solve outstanding challenges. Given the evolving nature of society, good governance is a continuous process. In the field of digital government, the Government of Chile has shown the lucidity, courage and commitment to accept the constant quest for improvement.

Under the leadership of the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry General Secretariat of the Presidency (through its Modernisation and Digital Government Unit) Chile has established itself as a regional leader and has been rapidly closing the gap with other OECD countries in the field of digital government. Instead of giving way to complacency, this drive has led the government to set one only objective: do better. This is particularly challenging in Chile given the short political cycles that produce frequent changes. This lack of continuity can affect the stability of digital government policies, the achievement of goals and the return on investment.

The Government of Chile engaged with the OECD in a Digital Government Review focused on the institutional and governance framework for digital government. The Review benchmarks Chile against ten advanced countries in the field of digital government.

The OECD Review Digital Government in Chile: The Institutional and Governance Framework, shows that good co-ordination across public institutions and appropriate incentives are essential to achieve expected goals.

ICT Governance Structures in OECD Countries


Source: OECD’s calculations based on OECD Survey on Open Government Data (dataset, 2014); OECD Survey on Digital Government Performance (dataset, 2014); and “OECD Questionnaire on Governance of Digital Government” (unpublished dataset, 2016); and desk research.

To drive change and develop  a whole-of-government approach, the Review recommends, the body responsible for digital government should be able to structure ICT investments and strategies  and ensure they are in line with the overall digital government strategy and broader public sector objectives. This implies endowing the entity with the right authority level supported by a solid legal basis. The Digital Government Review of Chile advances two alternative recommendations: (a) the creation of a Sub-Secretaría de Gobierno Digital, or (b) the creation of a digital government agency. The strengths and weaknesses of both models are assessed based on the Chilean context: (a) is more agile and provides greater political visibility; (b) provides greater stability and technical focus, which would need to be balanced with adequate democratic accountability and political leverage.

Governance choices must come from Chile’s democratically elected authorities. The digital government review was a gratifying exercise. It leaves small room for doubting that, provided with the right tools and institutional framework, Chile’s authorities and civil servants stand ready to drive government to the new digital frontier.

Useful links

Read the full digital government review of Chile

OECD work on digital government

Coordination and Implementation of the SDGs: The Role of the Centres of Government

NAECLuiz de Mello, Deputy Director of the OECD Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate

A principal issue for governments with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals is how to align policies in practice given the breadth and complexity of the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets, the mixed track record of most governments in working horizontally, and the need to include an unprecedented range of public and private actors in both policy formulation and implementation. The different phases bring with them very specific challenges. For example, adapting global targets to national contexts and setting targets at department level is a delicate, political task that requires careful and sensitive negotiation in order to ensure an inclusive process with real buy-in from key stakeholders both within and beyond government. Implementing the SDGs is a formidable governance challenge that needs to be steered. In recognition of this challenge and as a shift in thinking since the last set of global goals were agreed, the SDGs underscore the importance of building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (Goal 16) as a foundation for achieving the desired outcomes from ending poverty, to improving health, and combating climate change and its impacts.

Achieving progress across the SDGs will require governments to work across policy areas and steer the delivery of these ambitious goals. However, this is not an easy task: the obstacles to joined-up government are well known. For example, immediate economic and social pressures often crowd out strategic policy initiatives, particularly where the benefits from the latter span electoral terms. Public budgets and accountability systems are usually aligned with departmental structures and have difficulty tracking progress and valuing outcomes that accrue in multiple policy areas. One of the key institutions that can play a role in steering the delivery of the SDGs by highlighting trade-offs, enabling policies across issue areas to address multiple and sometimes competing objectives is the Centre of Government.

The OECD survey of the role and functions of the Centre of Government confirmed that, for most countries, the number of cross-ministerial initiatives has increased since 2008, but governments are still searching for effective models to deliver policies than span multiple departments. Governments have tried numerous solutions. For example, “super ministers” or “policy tsars” can be effective if they have sufficient drive and authority, but success depends on the status of an individual and might not lead to e integration at the policy level. Similarly, super ministries can help to integrate the policies of multiple departments, but internal silos often remain. Permanent (standing) or ad hoc committees are the most typical mechanism for “routine” coordination, but seem less suited for ambitious initiatives. Finally independent policy units can bring fresh ideas and new expertise but may face challenges in establishing legitimacy across departments. These models all have strengths and weaknesses, but none have shown to be entirely fit for purpose.

Of course, governments already have bodies and agencies to assess how well policies are being implemented – major contracts performance teams, supreme audit institutions, the ministry of finance expenditure tracking teams, and so on. They provide essential information to ensure accountability, track spending and measure outputs, but as each usually has its own benchmarks and reporting requirements, they often lack an overview of performance that would be needed to monitor SDGs.

The centre of government has a number of assets that can help to ensure that agenda-setting leads to an agreed and realistic approach. First, the centre is, technically, policy neutral, in contrast to departments. Second, the centre has convening power borrowed from the head of government and can bring pressure to bear on departments to adjust policies and commit resources. In principle, with respect to the head of government’s priorities, it does not need to rely on achieving consensus through compromise and lowest-common-denominator negotiations. Third, while line ministries, even those with the most relevant technical expertise, might have little experience in driving cross-disciplinary policies, the centre usually has co-ordination expertise allied with political sensitivity.

Often, the crucial ingredients provided by the centre are relatively minor, practical tools to overcome administrative rigidities, such as holding funding pools, designing tailored accountability frameworks or hosting project teams of specialists drawn from different departments or from outside government. Together, these inducements ensure that disruption of departments other operational tasks is minimised and that roles and expectations are clear for all.

There is also a clear role for the Centre to take a more active stance in reviewing and refining policy implementation linked to complex strategies such as the SDGs. The role of the Centre is already evolving in this direction in some countries. This has a number of advantages. First, it creates a more flexible system in which, if necessary, decision makers can take action to remedy problems or change course. Second, the Centre can pinpoint blockages and propose support and problem-solving advice to the agency concerned. Dedicated teams at the Centre of Government have become the preferred tool to ensure this close-to-the-ground monitoring, with countries setting up one or more teams in the three principal areas, strategy, policy and delivery. They are also in charge of building an evidence base of citizen experiences and expectations in the delivery of government priorities. These teams allow for focused attention on chosen priority areas, which are often complex and require management across a number of departments from the design phase to the implementation phase. In essence, Centres of Government can help steer government action from planning to the delivery of the SDGs.

Centres of Government have good practices to share in the design, steering and delivery of complex policies such as the SDGs, built on practical experience of setting, and increasingly leading complex agendas across government. As a way forward, and as the SDGs are a universal agenda – the Centres of Government could envisage:

  • Establishing whether there is an adequate evidence base to support quality decision-making throughout the policy cycle with regards the implementation of the SDGs
  • Maintaining the focus on the goals underpinning the SDGs despite short-term emergencies, shifting political priorities and electoral discontinuities
  • Setting out plans to address potential trade-offs in the agenda of the SDGs and ensuring inclusiveness is at the heart of the implementation plan in order to ‘leave no one behind’.

In all of these areas, the regional or country context will define implementation plans- there will not be a single pathway to delivery. As a result, the Centres of Government could benefit from the sharing of experiences on how countries have addressed complex agendas such as the SDGs that do not fall neatly under departmental or ministry portfolios, and how innovations in this area can support effective and accountable institutions.

Useful links

Network of Senior Officials from Centres of Government