Wu Wei Neng

Wu Wei Neng is the executive director of the Chandler Institute of Governance. He previously served in various portfolios in the Singapore government, including the Ministries of Defence and Trade and Industry, and in the Singapore Civil Service College. He is affiliated with Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities and Civil Service College in an adjunct capacity.

Co-Investing in

Good Governance

Governance has a vital role to play in building flourishing, prosperous communities and nations. So why does it attract relatively small amounts of philanthropic capital? And why do so many governance-related initiatives struggle? The Chandler Institute of Governance’s executive director Wu Wei Neng suggests ways to invest effectively in good governance. 

Seeing Governance with Fresh Eyes

As India faced a new wave of COVID-19 in the autumn of 2021, Jaspreet Talwar was tasked with addressing Punjab’s shortage of oxygen concentrators and oxygen cylinders, as well as the installation and operationalization of oxygen generation plants in government medical colleges and hospitals of the state. In a matter of weeks, Talwar oversaw the setup of over 80 oxygen generation plants across medical facilities in the state and established a global network that scoured the world for available oxygen canisters and concentrators. Remarkably, Talwar orchestrated these efforts while concurrently serving in two other senior roles in government. As principal secretary for the Punjab Department of Water Supply and Sanitation, she oversaw the delivery of water and waste management services for the state of over 29 million people; as director of the Mahatma Gandhi State Institute of Public Administration, she led Punjab’s civil service training academy.

This is not the sort of story most of us envision when we think of governance, nor is it the perception many of us have of government bureaucrats. Yet in my nearly two decades of working in the field of governance, I have worked alongside many governance champions like Talwar: motivated and entrepreneurial civil servants navigating huge workloads and shifting priorities as they tackle issues that directly improve, and in many cases save, lives. 

Stories like Talwar’s invite us to go beyond the stereotypes of governance and see the issue with fresh eyes. Such a perspective offers a clearer picture of the importance — and the complexity — of governance. It gives a sharper sense of what tangible progress looks like — and how we might actually achieve it.

The right solution isn’t the solution that is right on paper, it’s the one that can work in practice. 

Governance is the Key to Systems Change 

Eradicating extreme poverty and addressing the world’s major social challenges requires the collective efforts of government, business, and civil society. Yet history shows that governance has a particularly crucial role to play in supporting and magnifying the efforts of civil society and the private sector: Prosperity cannot thrive where there is weak governance, poor policy frameworks, or ineffective laws and legal systems. 

Data reinforces that argument. Each year, the Chandler Institute of Governance publishes the Chandler Good Government Index, which measures the outcomes and capabilities of 104 countries, or roughly 90% of the world’s population. The Index reveals a powerful link between the quality of a country’s government and the outcomes its people enjoy in areas such as health care, education, anti-corruption, and social mobility. 

This should not be news to the philanthropic community. Philanthropists “can no longer afford to overlook the importance of supporting government capacity in developing countries,” Andrew Stern, the founder and executive director of the Global Development Incubator, wrote in “Want your big bet to pay off? Don’t forget about government capacity,” a 2018 article in Stanford Social Innovation Review. “No matter what your philanthropic quest is, government funding and policy is bound to affect your philanthropy,” writes the philanthropic advisory firm The Bridgespan Group in their guide to working with government.  

Despite this, only a fraction of the world’s philanthropic capital and official development assistance goes toward improving the effectiveness of governance. Part of the reason is fear of being perceived as meddling in domestic politics, even though politics and governance are very different (governance is an ecosystem of institutions, systems, structures, and capabilities — not a political party or ideology). For philanthropists seeking impact in areas such as education, housing, or health care, it can be tempting to bypass or circumvent governments, and set up charitable initiatives that run alongside public systems. This approach is potentially valuable in the face of short-term exigencies, but risks alienating governments and eroding their effectiveness in the long term.

Working in Partnership, Harnessing Experience

There’s no way around it: Investing in governance is hard. Success can take years, if not decades. And progress is less tangible than directly building homes or educating children. Even if one has the courage and desire to invest, it may not be obvious how to make these investments work. 

Supporting governments in capability development requires an appreciation of just how challenging national governance is. I’ve seen many initiatives struggle for three reasons. 

First, their aim was not to work with the government; it was to start with their fixed idea of how that government needed to change. Second, the initiatives were not holistic enough to address the challenges systemically — for instance, to a proponent of evidence-based policymaking, every problem looks like a lack of evidence. Third, these organizations often failed to engage governments because they lacked experienced former government practitioners on their board, executive leadership, and staff. Outside perspectives can, of course, inject fresh ideas and practices. Yet it’s worth remembering that solutions that are obvious to outsiders tend to be already known to those in government. 

Fellows from the Public Service Emerging Leaders Fellowship program in Kenya discussion their policy directions with CIG's executive director Wu Wei Neng and Dean of the Chandler Academy of Governance Kenneth Sim. This exercise is a policy game designed to train the fellows to deal with policymaking in complex scenarios, July 2022.

Some years back, I delivered a presentation to a permanent secretary about reforming his country’s civil service pay structure. I explained the benefits of a system that incentivized good performers, and promoted officers based on their contributions rather than seniority. After the presentation, he told me that he agreed with what I said, but added wearily that my suggestions were unworkable. “If I do this today,” he said, “tomorrow the public sector unions will strike because they need to protect their members who will lose their jobs under a competitive system. My minister will transfer me out, and he may lose the next election. And the sacrifice of my job and my minister’s job won’t even be worth it; the next minister who takes over will reverse the changes to keep the unions happy. Life will go back to the way it was.”

The right solution isn’t the solution that is right on paper, it’s the one that can work in practice. 

Work in Partnership, Be Practical (Not Partisan)

These are some of the lessons that inform our approach at the Chandler Institute of Governance. We are one of the few privately funded nonprofit institutions that support government capability development at the national and local levels across the world. The Chandler Institute of Governance does not advocate fixed positions or lobby for partisan goals. We partner with governments when approached or invited to do so by national leaders and public sector agencies. We co-develop recommendations and action plans, and work with them to implement the solutions they choose. 

The Chandler Academy of Governance, which is CIG’s global training arm, provides practitioner-focused skills programs for government officers. The Chandler Good Government Index supports governments in benchmarking and strengthening the core capabilities and outcomes of good governance. We have conducted programs and projects in countries ranging from Kenya to Costa Rica, India to Vietnam, the Philippines to Zambia. Each of our products and initiatives emphasizes the practical tradecraft of governance and institution building, rather than abstract theory.

Chandler Institute of Governance executive director Wu Wei Neng, facilitating a strategic planning exercise for the Emoluments Commission, Cabinet Office of Zambia, July 2022.

Investing in Governance Champions

There are no fail-proof formulas in governance, yet there are ways to increase the likelihood of success when  partnering with a government. Humility helps build a relationship of trust and respect, and keeps the focus on creating progress, not competing for credit. Patience is similarly powerful; the goal is long-term change, not overnight results. 

For any social investor unsure of where to begin, a starting point might be to find “champions” in government — capable, smart, motivated leaders like Talwar in Punjab. Governments around the world are full of such champions with the desire and drive to make a difference. The great opportunity for social investors is to connect with these champions, listen deeply to their ideas, and then connect them with other governance practitioners to implement practical initiatives that yield concrete outcomes.

Wu Wei Neng

Wu Wei Neng is the executive director of the Chandler Institute of Governance. He previously served in various portfolios in the Singapore government, including the Ministries of Defence and Trade and Industry, and in the Singapore Civil Service College. He is affiliated with Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities and Civil Service College in an adjunct capacity.

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