The digital era poses challenges to policymaking and public governance, the greatest of which pertains to swift changes in technology, expectations and adaptability.
Professor David Eaves from Harvard Kennedy School and other public policy professors at eight big universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia and Singapore have embarked on research and identified eight competencies that a public leader must develop in the digital era, including user empathy, understanding of digital risks, the ability to coordinate across sectors, agile iterative thinking, understanding of systemic barriers, open-mindedness and the ability to identify and use data for policymaking.
Empathy is essential as being aware of the needs and experiences of users will lead to flexible, appropriate and effective solutions and policies. In the public sector, the users are members of the public.
Grasping the necessity of user-centric policymaking paves the way for the effective application of two competencies, the ability to coordinate across sectors and adopt agile, iterative management practices, in digital public governance.
The authors are involved in a research project in which one of the aims is to assess and position technological awareness among public administration leaders in some localities (in line with the set of competencies outlined above).
Preliminary findings show that a user-centric mindset is almost non-existent and, if it exists, can be hard to embrace under the current policymaking approach, at least in the localities surveyed. A reason is that most policies are top-down. Consequently, agile, iterative management is also difficult to adopt since public servants must adhere to regulations and there is little room for errors in the adoption of new ideas.
The reality of pandemic management
A user-centric approach seems more applicable to new policies, based on new circumstances and not constrained by existing regulations. HCMC’s experience in handling the pandemic shows the importance of empathy with users and its feasibility in public governance, in both policy formulation and policy implementation.
Both phases are important in policymaking and can embrace a user-centric approach. Directive 16 on social distancing is an existing policy which should be applied from the user’s perspective if it is to attain its goals. If the challenges facing the public in complying with the regulations and gaining access to essential products, as well as the testing capabilities of healthcare facilities, were carefully considered, their implementation would be more effective.
Many policies adopted by HCMC as it implements Directive 16 are based on waterfall planning, in which roles and responsibilities are clearly assigned and strictly adhered to throughout the policymaking process. This has spelled trouble for enterprises and the people. Some challenges include negative test result certificates, as well as the bans on wet markets and takeaway food.
Negative test result certificates merely indicate that the holders are not infected when tested; whether they are infected when the certificates are presented is another matter. The longer the gaps between these two points of time is, the less reliable the certificates will be. The certificates have a validity period of three days, but the Ministry of Health says that the figure for the Delta variant is only two days. In other words, the goal and effect of the certificates are problematic. Implementing this policy is costly and entails infection risks when people rush to get tested.
Large-scale testing is also an issue. Digital appointments can be used and testing facilities can be scattered to avoid crowds. Logistics and event organizers can be invited to join forces with the healthcare authorities, so that the need for testing and social distancing (still the most effective weapon against Covid-19, after vaccination) can be addressed.
The lack of a user-centric approach is also evident in contact tracing. Some complain that the questions posed are confusing and not user-friendly (for example, with regard to verification codes). This leads to inconvenience, especially in cases of emergency.
As takeaway food is banned, many people used to dine out must learn to cook or do what shippers used to do. Fears of shortages of essential products have led to crowds at supply channels other than wet markets. According to the HCMC Department of Industry and Trade, traditional markets account for up to 70% of goods in the city. A user-friendly approach would have considered this.
Coordination across sectors is also vital. While policies aim to reduce the spread of Covid-19, they should not disregard basic needs. The lack of coordination with transport and logistics means the supply of vegetables is disrupted and prices rise in the city. The lack of coordination with digital agencies means that social distancing principles are violated at various testing and vaccination centers, raising infection risks.
Fortunately, some localities and enterprises have actively tried to manage these issues through solutions such as retail trucks and outdoor supermarkets that comply with social distancing. Some online channels have maximized their delivery capabilities. However, they can only cater to a small group of people since the prices charged are different and some shortages remain.
In short, policymaking should be user-centric. Even in the case of existing policies, those implementing them should still bear in mind the needs of the public, so that flexible support can be offered.
The ultimate goal of public policy is to best cater to the people. To that end, flexibility in policy design and implementation is important, given their impacts on the public.
A user-centric and agile, iterative approach that requires inter-agency coordination may sound like far-fetched theory, but it is essentially humane and practical. It allows policymakers to put themselves in the shoes of the public, understand the latter’s challenges and needs and make necessary and timely adjustments. A successful shift to the digital era starts with this mindset change.
(The article reflects the authors’ views and does not represent the organization.)
(*) Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management
By Nguyen Quy Tam –Huynh Nhat Nam(*)