Adrian Brown: As world leaders gather in Davos, they should seize the chance to turn ideas into impact

With the path from Whitehall to Davos well-worn, Adrian Brown suggests how delegates at this week's event might turn pledges into reality 

By Adrian Brown

19 Jan 2016

Few events exert a more magnetic allure than the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. 

Every January, policymakers and business leaders, philanthropists and top academics, head to the Swiss resort to engage in a few days of debate on issues pivotal to the global economy and body politic. Diaries are cleared, meetings booked and speeches prepared – and the UK government is no exception. Prime ministers past and present, as well as the chancellor and many others, can be counted on to attend.

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

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

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

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

We are also working alongside colleagues at the Cabinet Office to create LaunchPad, a new initiative that brought together experts in artificial intelligence, robotics and data science with civil servants to see how such advances could help progress ideas in government. 

But while systems and issues may be in flux, one thing that stays constant is the need for results. Citizens expect them, the media demands them, and governments hunt high and low for them. However, if expectations are not met, legitimacy declines and this generates cynicism with the political process and democracy more generally. No wonder that between 2007 and 2014, confidence in national governments declined from 45% to 40% on average according to the OECD, underlining what the Centre for Public Impact calls the “impact imperative”. 

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

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

Thankfully there is now a vast amount of performance data to help them and this is where huge improvements can take flight. Take the World Bank for example. Some of its development priorities offer a quarterly or even more regular frequency of collection, and this ensures repeated iteration and adaptation. The data is then published on an external website to boost transparency. The more data is shared the better as it enables more people to track, share and learn together – strengthening outcomes in the process. 

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

Achieving positive change is by no means straightforward but it can be done. It's time to get to work – at Davos and beyond.

Read the most recent articles written by Adrian Brown - Opinion: A quiet revolution in public services has got Whitehall’s attention

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