The science is there. Actually a lot of it. The answer has to be political and there is where one can lose hope. This is not important for Australia, but for the whole planet. Not easy to find hope as things stand.
As a climate scientist I am wondering if the Earth system has now reached a tipping point
It is the last day of the year and the temperature is dropping fast here in Hyväsalmi, in Eastern Finland. The ice on the lake had started to melt during the last couple of days but is now getting thicker again. I went down to the lake earlier on to take this photo of the last sunset of the year and of the decade.
I could hear sounds coming from the water trapped under the ice. Strange sounds. Deep bubbling and ice cracking and moving. Some sounds were close to where I was standing. Some came from far away, transmitted with an echo along the ice and across the forest.
The end of the year is few hours away and it is almost inevitable not to think about the last 12 months. The things I have learned from the colleagues I have worked with. The ideas we have had, some of which we will continue to develop in the new year.
A discussion paper on the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The year begun with the publication of this working paper which I co-wrote with Maria Malho (Demos Helsinki), Vanesa Weyrauch (Politics & Ideas), Fred Carden (Using Evidence) and with the assistance and support from Helvetas and in collaboration with Southern Voice and UNESCO Uruguay. The paper suggests some of the questions that we think underpin the changes that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, through automation, AI, big data, Internet of Thing, etc., will bring (and is already bringing) to policy making processes and governance systems. While a lot of research has gone into how automation will change industries and production capabilities, little research has been carried about the changes in policy and governance and the how countries (high income, middle income, low income) should prepare to adapt their policy making and administrative capabilities to the new digital technologies and, at the same time, tackle the three main problems of our times: inequality, climate change, and the impact of automation on jobs. I plan to continue investigate these issues in the new year.
The sub-national governance reform and climate resilience in Nepal
I was back in Nepal for two projects: one with The Asia Foundation (Strategic Partnership on Sub-national Governance Program) and one with ODI and Itad (BRACED). The governance reform that began after the promulgation of the new Constitution in September 2015 has been defined as a ‘radical experiment’, which followed 10 years of Maoist insurgency between 1996 and 2006. This was a difficult period, which included progressive restructuring of State institutions, the abolition of the monarchy, and a massive earthquake that hit Nepal on 25 April 2015. The new Constitution mandates the transition of Nepal from a centralised unitary state to a federal country with three tiers of government: a federal government at the centre, seven provincial governments, and local governments. The passing of the Constitution was an important milestone that raised enormous expectations, among citizens, for a rapid transition to federalism. There have been important successes over the last four years in implementing the mandates of the Constitution, in particular the definition of the 753 new local government units and the first local elections since 1997 which took place May and September 2017 electing 35,041 local government representatives. Some of the main challenges that law makers and policy makers tackled which contribute to the slow progress of federalism relate to the need to revise hundreds of laws, policies and procedures. Another area where there continues to be considerable uncertainty is the delegation, from national level, of significant decision-making power as well as autonomy over raising and spending revenue to sub-national ministries.
The knowledge system in Cambodia
I was back in Cambodia working on a study on the knowledge system for public policy for The Asia Foundation. I lived in Cambodia from 2001-2005. My PhD is on the decentralisation of the education sector in Cambodia. I had not been back since 2010. I found Phnom Penh very different from how I remember it. More traffic. High rising buildings. Construction sites in several part of the city. Other cities are also being transformed by the influx of foreign capital. At the same time, I wondered whether life has changed much for the people who live in the villages in the most remote districts. This time I stayed only few days and only in Phnom Penh but it would be interesting to explore what changes have occurred in the provinces and in the province where I lived, Kampong Thom. How and what types of knowledge inform the decisions of the commune councils which were elected for the first time in 2001 when I had just arrived in Cambodia.
Universities and the higher education system in Somalia
I have led a study for the Swedish International Development Agency on the higher education sector in Somalia. I collaborated with a team of colleagues based in London and in Somalia. The study was completed in the end of the year and we are in the process of producing the report layout. The report will be presented in the beginning of the 2020. Higher education is usually the part of the education system that takes most to recover from a conflict. This is because the government and international development partners tend, with good reasons, to support the recovery of the basic education systems first. Somalia and its education system were new for me. However, when working on the data collection, analysis, and then the report writing it reminded me in some ways to my PhD research on the education system in Cambodia. The destruction of all the education infrastructure throughout the the civil war, the Khmer Rouge regime, and the warfare that followed the 10 years occupation by Vietnamese forces. I remember a quote I used in my PhD which said that when the Vietnamese backed government (the People’s Republic of Kampuchea) was established following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, there were just 300 people with some level of education who survived the Khmer Rouge regime to begin rebuild the state institutions. Just 300 people. Somalia has a very different history, politics, context, but the struggle to rebuild the human capital to manage and develop the higher education system and the state institutions have some similarities for me.
The political economy of the use of evidence in public policy in Pakistan
I was in Pakistan twice this year. I am involved with three local organisations (SDPI, Tabadlab, and Sparc) in a very interesting political economy study of the demand and use of knowledge in three sectors: economic policy and planning, education and employment, and child labour. The study will continue until the end of March 2020. What is really interesting in this project is the opportunity that we have to apply a problem-driven approach to understand why things are the way they are in terms of using research, data, analysis, etc. to inform policy decisions. The political economy lens helps us keep a focus on the politics, think first about problems, and avoid starting from pre-determined solutions.
In September, the company we have set up here in Finland, Capability, became one year old.
It is getting late and I need to start preparing the wood and fetch the water from the lake for the sauna. I will post this tomorrow with the photo from the first day of the new year, a year where I want to continue to learn as I did this year, publish interviews, and explore the changes that digital technologies and policy innovations are bringing to governance systems around the world.
This paper is the result of a collaboration between a group of organisations, interested in the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on policymaking process and the production and use of knowledge to inform those policy processes. The organisations are: Capability (Finland), Demos Helsinki (Finland), HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation (Switzerland), Politics & Ideas (global), Southern Voice (global), UNESCO Montevideo and Using Evidence (Canada). An early draft of this discussion paper was used to kick start a panel discussion at the Think Tank Initiative Exchange in Bangkok in October 2018, chaired by Andrea Ordoñez of Southern Voice and Leandro Echt of Politics & Ideas. These are the first steps of a collaborative policy research project that we want to undertake in different countries, bringing together policy makers, practitioners and policy researchers to explore the changes in the capabilities of governance and knowledge systems in middle-income countries as a result of the imminent Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In a September 2016 article in the Guardian, technology editor Alex Hearn reflected that back in 2012, Forbes magazine had posed the question: Isdata the new oil? Four years on, in 2016, Fortune brushed away any doubts about the answer and declared, Data is the new oil.
The rapid expansion of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in all domains of our lives (home assistants, public health, education, banking, human resource recruitment, creative writing, shopping, advertising…the list is long) requires more and more data to operate. The more rapid the expansion of AI, the more exponential the demand for data for AI systems to operate, and the more data become valuable.
This is the reality we live in. This is also the reality of governance systems and policy making in the 21st Century. Data and new digital technologies can change (and are changing) the way governments design and implement public policies, and what (in the near future) may be seen as legitimate and credible knowledge for evidence-informed decisions.
To discuss the role knowledge plays in governance systems and the changes that new digital technologies are bringing, I talked with Matthias Herr. Matthias is the Regional Director of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation in Eastern and South Eastern Europe.
Matthias, thank you for making the time to share your ideas on the blog. Let’s start with Helvetas. Can you tell me briefly about the types of projects and programmes that Helvetas is implementing in the Balkans and Eastern Europe? What are their goals?
Helvetas has been working in the Balkans and Eastern Europe since the early 1990s. This means that as an organisation we have been part of the transformative processes that took place as a result of the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia. Our strategic focus in the region has been firstly on economic and labour market development – including vocational education, and secondly on governance, which includes decentralisation reforms, strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law, and improvements in public services. We engage in these areas with our partners to create enabling conditions so that all citizens can have equal access to economic opportunities, and that their political rights and freedoms of speech are guaranteed by democratic state institutions. Our aim is to contribute to changing the eco-systems rather than providing support to individual actors or organisations. Our assumption is that if we manage to influence the systems in which our partners operate, we are likely to achieve more inclusive, sustainable and large-scale impact. Sounds abstract and complicated, but let’s be honest, development is quite a complex matter!
Several of your programmes involve collaborating with national partners to reform elements of the governance and policy decision-making systems. This can involve changes in the way knowledge is used by government organisations to inform policy decisions that can help address social and economic problems in a society.
Citizens, through their experience and knowledge, can help inform policies. Researchers in universities produce knowledge. Government agencies have units and teams that produce data and analysis about social and economic trends. Knowledge is everywhere, but we cannot assume that it is used to inform policies aimed at addressing social and economic problems. The extent to which knowledge is made accessible and utilised to inform policy decisions defines the ability of societies to shape their future. In other words, what defines modern societies is, in my opinion, the fact that they are knowledge-intensive and have, over time, developed sophisticated relationships between knowledge bearers (for example, experts, researchers, entrepreneurs, civil society, citizens, etc.) to enable innovation and adaptation or, generally speaking, wealth creation. In the part of Europe where I work, knowledge tends to be more tacit and the flows of knowledge and information are mostly informal and confined to elite groups. Nepotism and clientelist forms of engagement in the economy and the political arena limit and undermine the use of knowledge for wealth creation in these contexts.
So, can sophisticated knowledge relationships also promote participation and inclusion in the policy process?
The more people in a society are able to access and participate in the purposeful generation, combination and dissemination of knowledge, the more a society is able to create wealth in a socially inclusive manner, and the more resilient the economy and political systems become to respond to changing circumstances. For example, new technologies such as AI, machine learning, automation, genetics, etc., require governments to adapt their education and labour systems to this new future. The more the policies that guide this adaptation are informed by research, analysis, expert advice and consultations with the public, the more they will reflect a broader consensus about the way forward. On the other hand, concentration of knowledge in the hands of a few, or the ability of only a few to bring their knowledge into critical political decision-making processes, leads to social injustice and unequal access to opportunities and rights.
How would you describe a knowledge system aimed at supporting policy decisions?
I see knowledge-to-policy systems (K2P) as consisting of a network of individual knowledge bearers, such as organisations or influential individuals who function as the nodal points in the system and who utilise knowledge for the purpose of influencing political decisions. Any country or sector has networks with several such nodal points with complementary as well as conflicting interests. Some of them channel knowledge through institutional decision-making processes, while others advocate for their specific interests from outside of political institutions. In doing so, they utilise both formal and informal channels to influence political decisions. The more of these nodal points there are, the more the policy process becomes inclusive and able to address today’s problems, and the responses to global trends and challenges.
How does this translate into the reality and context of the programmes you are involved with in the Western Balkans?
A key concern in the Western Balkan region relates to the fact that policy decision-making processes are captured by a small elite, leading to nepotism and corruption, ineffective policies and reforms, and a clientelist approach with tendencies towards a populist and nationalist agenda. The K2P systems consist of a limited number of nodal points and need to grow to become more inclusive and open to the use of different forms of knowledge, such as, for example, research-based evidence. The poor performance of national K2P systems in the region is probably one of the root causes of political instability and fragility in the region and therefore requires more attention in development cooperation.
Over the years I have been involved in many governance programmes with specific policy reform objectives, but only a few of these had an explicit, specific focus on knowledge systems for informing public policy. Is this also your experience? If so, why do you think that is?
Very few development partners have identified K2P as an important focal area – most donor-funded programmes address symptoms of under-performance but not their systemic causes. It is therefore crucial to identify strategies that lead to an overall knowledge intensification of the public discourse and political decision-making process by enabling wider access to knowledge bearers and strengthening those nodal points in a vast network that aggregate and communicate such knowledge. The key to doing this is to understand that K2P systems are pluralistic in terms of different opinions, ‘alternative facts’, and interests, all of which need to be given equal opportunity in accessing the political discourse.