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Towards a New Governance Agenda: What Are the Questions That Matter?

September 29, 2021

By Nicola Nixon, Stefaan Verhulst, Imran Matin, and Philips J. Vermonte

Late last year, we—the Governance Lab at NYU, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies of Indonesia, the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Bangladesh, and The Asia Foundation—joined forces across New York, Jakarta, Dhaka, Hanoi, and San Francisco to launch the 100 Governance Questions Initiative. This is the latest iteration of the GovLab’s broader initiative to map questions across several domains.

We live in an era marked by an unprecedented amount of data. Anyone who uses a mobile phone or accesses the internet is generating vast streams of information. Covid-19 has only intensified this phenomenon. 

Although this data contains tremendous potential for positive social transformation, much of that potential goes unfulfilled. In the development context, one chief problem is that data initiatives are often driven by supply (i.e., what data or data solutions are available?) rather than demand (what problems actually need solutions?). Too many projects begin with the database, the app, the dashboard—beholden to the seduction of technology—and now, many parts of the developing world are graveyards of tech pilots. As is well established in development theory, but not yet fully in practice, governance interventions that are supply-driven rather than demand-driven are destined to fail.


Too many projects begin with the database, the app, the dashboard—beholden to the seduction of technology—and now, many parts of the developing world are graveyards of tech pilots.


The 100 Questions Initiative, pioneered by the GovLab, seeks to overcome the chasm between supply and demand. It begins not by searching for what data is available but by asking important questions about the biggest challenges societies and countries face, and then seeking more targeted and relevant data solutions. In doing this, it narrows the gap between policymakers and constituents, providing opportunities for improved evidence-based policy and community engagement in developing countries. As part of this initiative, we seek to define the ten most important questions across several domains, including migration, gender, employment, the future of work, and now governance.

On this occasion, we invited over 100 experts and practitioners in governance and data science—whom we call “bilinguals”—from various organizations, companies, and government agencies to identify what they see as the most pressing governance questions in their respective domains. Over 100 bilinguals were encouraged to prioritize potential impact, novelty, and feasibility in their questioning, moving toward a roadmap for data-driven action and collaboration that is both actionable and ambitious.

A women-led workshop look over a map and the Safetipin app on their phones.

(Photo: The Asia Foundation) 

By June, the bilinguals had articulated 170 governance-related questions. Over the next couple of months, these were sorted, discussed, and refined during two rounds of collaboration to narrow down first to the top 40 and then to the top 10. Bilinguals were asked what, to them, are the most significant governance questions we must answer with data today? The result is the following 10 questions:

    1. What is the relationship between transparency of government performance and public trust in government institutions? Which factors have the most significant impact on increasing public trust in government?
    2. Which populations/groups are and are not represented in data that is collected and used for formal government decision-making? Who is most at risk of being excluded from consideration or inclusion with the rise in data innovations? 
    3. If citizens have greater access to data and information, does that mobilize them to take action and engage politically? Under what circumstances does that happen?
    4. How are social media and digital communications platforms affecting the way people engage politically and the nature and quality of political debate? 
    5. What are the key factors contributing to effective civic engagement at national and local levels? Which skills or incentives do citizens need to participate in public decision-making? 
    6. Does open governance affect the accountability of those in power, facilitate public debate and participation, and lead to more inclusive, transparent, and timely decision-making? 
    7. How can democracies achieve inclusion more effectively, in terms of both process (i.e., how decisions are made, whose voices count), and outcomes (i.e., how resources, prosperity, and well-being are distributed)?
    8. How does the level of transparency and community monitoring of government budgets and expenditures at different administrative levels affect the quality of public service delivery? 
    9. Which factors play the biggest role in determining differences in institutional capacity and performance of government agencies? 
    10. How has democratic regression (i.e., erosion of democratic norms and standards) affected public service delivery? Does less-democratic governance lead to less-effective service delivery? 

The public vote and accompanying webinar events will give us a chance to discuss and debate the salience and answerability of these questions with a broad audience. Through this exercise, together with our bilingual collaborators, we aim to identify interests and build collaborative future efforts to find and use the data that can answer some of these questions. 

(Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The governance challenges of our present era, perhaps especially those posed by a globally dispersed pandemic, require multisectoral and geographically diverse collaboration. It is our hope that this collaborative will pool data and expertise across sectors and regions to generate new insights and public-sector innovations to strengthen and improve the quality of governance.

Join us and have your say on which of these represent the most pressing governance questions right now. These questions are just what the bilinguals say; now we want to test them with a much broader audience. Click on the link below and have your say! 

Link to public voting

Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s director of governance programs, Stefaan Verhulst is cofounder and chief R&D director of the GovLab, Imran Matin is executive director of the BRAC Institute of Governance & Development, and Philips J. Vermonte is executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. They can be reached via [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

This post previously appeared in the blog From Poverty to Power.

Related programs: Good Governance

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