This blogpost was written by Sri Ranjani Mukundan, a Masters in Public Policy student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, Singapore. In this piece, she explains the need for an integrated systems innovation approach in a post-COVID world. 

This piece is part of our Student Contributions series. Find out how to contribute here. Student Contributions are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the opinion of The Futures Project.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many disruptions to people, businesses and governments alike. A lot of progress on the Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs), which has been achieved through strenuous planning and implementation throughout the years, is at a risk of regressing. A potential social and economic crisis is lurking around the corner as a consequence of the pandemic. With most countries implementing months of lockdown, a myriad of unintended consequences has surfaced, exposing some of the weak links in basic societal structures: from a lack of food to increased domestic violence against women, to a loss of livelihoods and increase in poverty, and so on and so forth. It is estimated that COVID-19 could push 100 million people into extreme poverty and 265 million could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020. The United Nations came up with a framework for immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19, to prevent countries from going back on the progress they have made on the SDGs over the years.

The world is at a turning point today. Many discussions are taking place about the ‘new normal’. It is about time that governments change the way policies are made. Siloed policy making will not be fruitful in the recovery in a post-COVID world. With the enormous economic losses countries have faced, governments have a large responsibility in getting the economy back on track with limited resources at their disposal. In order to overcome these impediments, governments need to adopt an integrated approach, moving away from single-point solutions towards systems innovation. Just technological or financial innovations will not help governments. The way forward is in innovation that integrates the entire system – fiscal, financial, economic, technological and societal.

The International Science Council has mapped each SDG and their interactions with one another to show how an improvement in one SDG might positively or negatively impact others. Similarly, the policy innovation space is highly interlinked and complex. For instance, a policy to create decent work (SDG 8) might lead to a reduction in poverty (SDG 1), reduction in hunger levels (SDG 2), better well-being (SDG 3), quality education (SDG 4) and so on. The unintended consequences arising from policy are often attributed to the error term or the unexplained factor of the equation in an impact evaluation. A quantitative monitoring and evaluation (M&E) method would track only those effects/impacts that the policy was intended to do.

In the above example, the impact of a policy to create decent work will be based only on how many jobs were created. But what should also be included in the impact evaluation (IE) is how other areas simultaneously improved (say, a reduction in poverty levels). However, these linkages are pertinent not only in understanding the impact of the policy, but also in efficient use of the few resources available. The reason for failure of many policies is that they are looked at in siloes and their impact is gauged based only on that particular policy, ignoring a whole level of unintended impact or consequences that the policy has promoted. This is why systems innovation and signaling in the policy space could lead to a monumental impact in a post-COVID world—a world with fewer resources but bigger problems to tackle.

Here are a few steps that could be adopted, to promote a successful systems innovation space.   

  1. Develop a Policy integration map. It will be essential for governments to map every policy going forward, creating a systems map, to understand which policies are positively/negatively impacting each other and to understand the links. This would help make the policymaking and implementation process more agile, as it is easier to spot the weak links whenever a crisis occurs, thereby making it easier and faster to resolve. 
  1. Initiate an Integrated Innovation approach. We no longer live in the era led by only digital or financial innovation. Despite high strides in technological advancement, millions of people did not have access to internet during this pandemic. Even with new Fintechs and other innovative financial products, governments are still lacking funds to support the recovery. Going forward, we will need a more integrated approach to innovation that has the potential to integrate multiple aspects of society and not only focus on technology or finance. An innovative SDG financing space coupled with SDG integration will help in a stock-taking exercise of what’s working and what’s not, and divert the resources accordingly. 
  1. Using multistakeholder engagement models. The policy space has for a long time (if not always) been dominated by stakeholder models such as 3P (Public-Private-Partnership), government and private sector experts. But the COVID-19 crisis has exposed some weak links that need grassroot level solutions, rather than nationwide solutions. This calls for a deep listening exercise, involving every stakeholder possible. This could be done through stakeholder mapping for every policy, and also through a shift from 3P to the 4P model (Public-Private-People partnership), to improve policy implementation and community resilience. 

These three steps would lead to a more efficient, inclusive and innovative policy-making space, which is the need of the hour, to devise an impactful recovery plan for countries and to build back better. The COVID-19 pandemic has put many governments in a bad light because of their poor response, not only in terms of healthcare, but from a social security standpoint as well. The traditional policymaking methods would thus not provide sufficient cushion to create an agile and flexible atmosphere to alter the specifics of policy based on continuous M&E, rather than a siloed IE once policy has been implemented. Given the circumstances, this would require a business-like systems innovation model. This gives policy makers more freedom to alter and maneuver the policy in a way that befits the emerging situations and make it resilient to external shocks. This would determine how countries recover and thrive in a post-COVID world.