Spurring innovation in governance through joint learning

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, it posed multi-pronged challenges to communities across the world, uniting them in the struggle to contain a crisis that continues to have far-reaching social and economic implications.

The scope of its impact spanned from the need for essential services for the most vulnerable citizens to supporting the research efforts of the medical community in the hope of a breakthrough vaccine that would ensure that all segments of the population have access to preventative care. With such a multifaceted crisis at hand and so many lives at stake, it was interesting to observe how the crisis forced governments everywhere to break internal silos and use an all-hands-on-deck approach to problem solving.

Take for instance the Covid War Rooms that were set up by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in Mumbai that helped manage the crisis at its peak during the second wave. Popularly known as the 'Mumbai model', this system of decentralised governance involved setting up disaster control rooms across all 24 wards in the city, with dedicated helpline numbers and at least 15 staff members working around the clock in multiple shifts in every ward. Representatives from various departments in the government worked alongside public school teachers, doctors, data operators, and citizen volunteers in each of these war rooms to allot beds as necessary, check up on patients and more. This desiloised approach was lauded by the Supreme Court and was subsequently adopted by other cities such as Delhi and Bangalore.

In other parts of the country, the pandemic led to the creation of cross-disciplinary groups to address urgent needs and challenges. For instance the Corona Captains WhatsApp group comprised of incident commanders (young IAS officers) that looked into citizens’ needs during the first lockdown, and formed online communities to share ideas and information with each other. There is also evidence of WhatsApp groups where IAS officers worked with doctors and citizens to spread information and provide help where necessary.

It is safe to say, therefore, that the crisis has exposed an important opportunity to spur innovation in governance. Looking beyond departmental, sectoral and geographical boundaries to find solutions to complex issues has emerged as an important modus operandi of the government in its fight against the spread of the virus. 

Which warrants an important question -- what if there was a way to infuse this collaborative problem-solving approach in the permanent toolkit of Indian governance? Imagine the application of siloless thinking and a multidisciplinary approach to significant issues such as last-mile access to healthcare or provision of quality education to all.

Joint Learning for greater impact

One way to mainstream this collaborative approach is to make it a part of capacity building efforts. And an important methodology used to foster this is joint learning -- loosely defined as a group of individuals who learn together (and from each other) in a bid to push the boundaries of institutional knowledge and work collaboratively to solve complex practical problems. Joint learning communities already abound within the social sector. A good example is the Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage. Founded in 2010, the JLN is a global network of government and health sector professionals who are working to bring universal health coverage to its various member nations. The network focuses on co-creation of knowledge products and tools that can be adapted across contexts of member countries to make health insurance more accessible. 

The JLN story and its lessons can be extrapolated directly to the kind of problems that governments have to solve on a daily basis. Examples of such problems include attempts to influence the health needs of underserved communities or curbing drop-out rates in government schools. Addressing such problems not only requires insights from technical fields such as healthcare, education and behavioral science but also an understanding of cultural practices and the local political environment of a particular community.

It is neither possible nor advisable therefore to depend on the decision-making power and perspective of only one level of the government on matters such as these. Joint learning brings about a plurality of perspectives to multifaceted problems. A joint learning community in the government would ideally be designed to tap into various levels of the government for ideas and insights. Among other things, this would bring to the table much-needed feedback from citizen communities (via local government functionaries) on how government programs are received at the grassroots level. This can serve as a critical input for refining solutions or crafting policies that are more inclusive and human centered.

As the pandemic rages on and the threat of climate change looms larger than ever, it will be important for governments to expand their armoury of solutions to take on such complex problems. In addition, the changing expectations of citizens who are surrounded by technology and innovation in all aspects of life has made it imperative that governments catch up with the private sector to be able to respond to evolving needs through more structured innovation. Joint learning holds a lot of promise as an approach to addressing both these issues. It allows for an all-of-government approach to solve complex problems and the breaking of internal silos to overcome traditional barriers to innovation.

Joint learning is all set to become an important part of the capacity building ecosystem of Indian government officials. JLI or Joint Learning on iGOT has been designed to provide joint learning opportunities on iGOT Karmayogi, the technology platform to operationalise Mission Karmayogi. Using JLI, government officials will be able to learn and collaborate with colleagues from across different departments in the government on shared developmental issues. 

When it comes to ambitious, reformative policies, implementing models of joint learning will be crucial in the growth and success of a nation and its people -- so at a time of crisis, it’s not just shared loss that binds citizens but also shared hope in their government’s ability to tide them over.

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