Never underestimate the importance of good government

Earlier this year former Danish finance minister Bjarne Corydon joined McKinsey as a senior partner and director of the McKinsey Center for Government. His recently published article, Transforming government through digitization, describes opportunities for governments globally to deliver better, more efficient, and more responsive public services.

Why did you leave government and politics?

In many ways it was a natural point of change for me. Although I’m still quite young relative to the average age of politicians, I’d spent my whole working life in Danish policymaking and the civil service. After four years as finance minister—a period of “reform frenzy,” as our prime minister described it—it felt like the right time to look for a new learning curve to climb.

The other factor is that I’ve always fought against the tendency for policymakers to shut themselves off from the private and social sectors. In government I made it a personal mission to challenge this attitude. We changed the appointment procedure for the top levels of the civil service to make it more open to outside candidates. I think you get better decisions when there are easy and fluid transitions in and out of government. So I wanted to live out my persuasion on this issue.

What did you learn from your period as finance minister?

Something that’s not always apparent is how difficult it is to implement policies that create a level playing field, achieve a fair prioritization of public resources, and take into account the long-term interests of future generations. If these are your goals as a minister, your position is actually quite weak compared to special interests or people with short-term, opportunistic positions. To win you have to be technically very well equipped and very patient.

Of course, you should never underestimate the role of political leadership and courage. But there is also a technical side to this as well. Even the most courageous, boldest political leader won’t be able to implement successful reform without the right technical tools, an informed approach, and an awareness of best practices. Government is not only about politics and ideology, it is also about a certain craftsmanship of policy.

As a government minister you have a lot of technical resources at your disposal—civil servants, think tanks, academics. What does McKinsey bring to the table in this context?

More than anything I think it is an ability to connect the dots. There’s a lot of knowledge here [within McKinsey], a lot of experience globally, a lot of innovative partnerships. As a policymaker it is very helpful to be able to draw on this kind of global perspective.

The other special thing about McKinsey is that the knowledge comes from experience doing real work on the ground with high stakes and tight deadlines. It’s not just theory. Everything here is tested against reality and that’s truly unique.

As you talk to government leaders around the world, are there one or two common issues they are all facing?

I see most governments facing a very similar set of challenges. Citizens are expecting more. Their demands are becoming more complex, more individualized. Developments in the private sector are raising their expectations. At the same time, governments are under economic pressure—in some cases, under quite extreme pressure. The only way forward is to deliver “better for less.” To do that you have to change the way government operates. That’s the challenge.

The optimistic side of the equation is that options are available—options to use technology and digitization, to deploy analytics, to adopt best practices in public-finance management, and so on. We talk about some of these opportunities in the new article. So even though there is a lot of pressure and skepticism about what government can deliver, there are options out there.

The truth is the quality of governance and government makes an underestimated difference to the performance of nations and the well-being of citizens. Never underestimate the importance of good government.

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