How COVID-19 may catalyze innovation in the State

How COVID-19 may catalyze innovation in the State

The sanitary, economic, and social crisis unleashed by the new coronavirus pandemic transformed the government’s innovation agenda into a concrete need. In an urgency context, in which complete information is lacking for decision-making on the part of public leaderships, and collective uncertainties exist even of technical and scientific nature, countries have invested budgetary resourced and hours of work in the development and adoption of emerging technologies for preventing, diagnosing, and treating COVID-19. This change has caused an inflection in the academic and practical agenda of innovation in government. This agenda, which up to then was predominantly aimed towards the search for efficiency (doing more with fewer resources), is now guided by a greater concern with the effective capacity of delivering essential public policies, strengthening an innovation logic oriented by social challenges and demands. In this sense, greater effectiveness is sought (the capacity to do one thing the best way possible), as well as the legitimacy of the public sector in coping with complex problems.

In recent decades, the predominant narrative on the theme of innovation in government was that governments, with their strict bureaucratic structures, should increase their performance exponentially to execute more public policies with fewer resources: an agenda aimed toward an increase in efficiency.  The materialization of this agenda took place through the emulation, on the part of governments, of private-sector practices: fast cycles for the development of new products and services, programming marathons, and the belief, somewhat naive, that all and any governmental challenge could be resolved through startup calls. However, there is an important limitation in the transference of concepts from the private to the public sector, given that the motivations of the private sector to innovate (increase in competitiveness and profit maximization) are not the same as those of the public sector.

The COVID-19 crisis dislocated the discussion by placing in the center of debate the role of innovation in government in building state capacity. In other words, if innovation in government could previously be understood as an agenda of incremental or accessory nature, it became a necessary input to the process of building new provision capacities of public policies and services by the State. Technologies connected to public health, such as new pulmonary ventilators and diagnostic tests, are the more evident examples. But even the digitalization of various public services, for example, is now understood as essential, insofar as it is necessary to guarantee access to basic services in a context of restriction of economic activities and people circulation.

The ‘entrepreneur State’ has emerged as an important way to face the great social challenges with which all countries will encounter sooner or later.

State capacities must not be understood merely as the availability of budgetary and personnel resources or even the existence of a given type of public body. Here, we refer to the set of managerial, administrative capacities necessary for governments of various levels to be capable of formulating and implementing public policies in a coordinated manner, acting on public challenges actively and effectively, and responding to the social demands. The role of the institutional arrangements of public policies, i.e., the set of rules, mechanisms, and processes used by government agencies and bodies for implementing policies, is determinant of this state capacity.

The more efficiency-directed conception that guided the efforts of innovation in government since the 1980s had its beginning from the reformist agendas based on the theoretical framework of the “New Public Management”. They aimed at overcoming the Weberian conception of State based on the hierarchical organization of autonomous and little-integrated bureaucratic structures. Although the objective is indisputably valid, such efforts were guided by an excessively optimistic emulation of private practices.


Article written by João Arthur Reis and Felipe Maruyama and published in Jornal NEXO on September 6th, 2020.


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