Embracing lean and anticipatory governance for a better future

UNDP Bhutan
7 min readJan 15, 2024

As Bhutan prepares to roll out its 13th Five Year Plan (2024–2029) which seeks to steer the nation towards a high-income status with inclusive and sustainable growth, this blog looks at how Bhutan is incorporating strategic foresight and lean governance approaches to achieve its goal of a “Developed Bhutan” by 2034. It also outlines policy options for an anticipatory, agile, and adaptive governance that would help accelerate green growth.

UNDP’s engagement with the Royal Government of Bhutan on the formulation of the country's past five-year development plans has been largely focused on financial support. Breaking with tradition and scaling our partnership in 2023, UNDP provided strategic technical support to the preparation of the 13th Five Year Plan, leveraging our expertise and experience in strategic planning, foresight, portfolio design and innovation.

All cluster labs, 27th March 2023. Photo: UNDP Bhutan/ Norbu Choksum Zangmo

Our support was holistic in that it included financial resources, internal staff expertise, and knowledge support, collaborating closely with the Cabinet Secretariat.

Horizon scanning of Bhutan’s economic landscape. The 13th Plan horizon scanning exercises conducted by UNDP in collaboration with the erstwhile Perspective Planning Division, Gross National Happiness Commission, and multiple agencies was instrumental in the formulation of the 13th plan concept note. Employing a whole-of-government approach, the initiative delved into Bhutan’s socio-economic landscape, identifying weak signals, trends and underlying drivers. This helped map potential risks and opportunities for the nation’s future.

Integrating strategic foresight in public sector. In early 2023, UNDP and the Royal Institute of Management (RIM) co-developed and co-delivered “Strategic Foresight for Anticipatory Governance Module” for new administrative civil service recruits in institutionalizing strategic foresight into civil service training. This initiative institutionalized strategic foresight, a crucial step towards equipping civil servants with vital strategic foresight skills required to practice anticipatory governance effectively within their respective organizations to better navigate the fast-evolving world.

Driving policy innovation through a clusters lab approach. An innovative approach adopted in the initial stages of the 13th Five Year Plan preparation was the introduction of the cluster labs. UNDP supported design and delivery of the cluster labs. Inspired by Malaysia’s PEMANDU- a firm that helps transform nations and organizations to achieve their big results fast, the Cluster Labs, simply put, are stakeholder workshops that aim to dissect individual priorities into tangible projects. This is done through a rigorous co-design and consultation process with responsible ministries, outlining clear action plan including timelines, budget, and KPIs. The labs designed for the 13th Five Year Plan preparation played a critical role in developing the country’s strategic priorities.

The cluster labs served as collaborative spaces where more than 200 policy leaders and civil servants from the whole of government including the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers came together to work on strategic objectives, co-create solutions, and finalize transformative activities.

Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering speaking at a Cluster Lab session. Photo: UNDP Bhutan/Norbu Choksum Zangmo

Through intense policy innovation exercises, four cluster labs–Economic Development, Governance, Security, and Social Development–successfully developed a shared vision of a Developed Bhutan. Each cluster lab’s outcomes were subsequently presented to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers, establishing a crucial feedback mechanism for making necessary improvements to the plan. This process ensures effective collaboration and enables valuable input from top-level decision-makers, enhancing the plan’s quality, relevance, and ownership. By engaging key stakeholders at such high levels, Bhutan ensures a robust and inclusive approach to plan refinement and implementation.

Outcomes and Transformative Interventions. The cluster labs yielded strategic objectives and outcomes for the four focus areas — Bhutan’s vision of a high-income country driven by innovation and sustainability, with a healthy and productive society and strengthened sovereignty and security, all underpinned by a transformed and trusted governance ecosystem that drives accelerated economic growth and improves people’s lives — emerged through these sessions. For each strategic objective and outcome, various outputs, projects, and key transformative activities have been identified, which is one of the salient features of the upcoming five-year plan.

The proposed interventions outlined in the plan, accompanied by the impact indicators, are closely aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Over 15 SDG Goals were closely correlated and integrated into the strategic objectives and related outcomes and outputs that will drive the achievement of the SDGs in the last decade of action.

13th FYP activity presentation to the Prime Minister. Photo: UNDP Bhutan/ Norbu Choksum Zangmo

Policy options for an anticipatory, agile, and adaptive governance

The strategic emphasis on economic growth in the 13th Plan aims to address challenges related to economic diversification, productivity enhancement through adoption of technology and innovation and social outcomes of quality health and education among others. Adoption and implementation of lean governance elements and strategies, that have been outlined in the 13th Five Year Plan can significantly enhance service delivery, citizen engagement, and governance systems. Below are a few key transformative initiatives — that will support Bhutan achieve its target of a “Developed Nation”. Some of these are reflected in the 13th Five Year Plan.

  1. Simplification and streamlining digital and e-governance reforms will ease bureaucratic processes and administrative bottlenecks. Technological infrastructure development investments proved instrumental in simplifying regulations and improving governance and business efficiency in Singapore. As identified in the 13th Five Year Plan, activities such as automation, digitalization of billing systems, and the development of a digitalized Civil Registration and Vital Statistics System (CRVS) will enhance efficiency and citizen-centric public administration. These can be initial steps towards expediting the streamlining of governance systems in the country.
  2. Decentralization and collaborative governance: Local governance and citizens’ engagement must be strengthened through decentralization efforts, including through policies such as municipalization of services, participatory budgeting, and digitalization of innovation ecosystems such as incubators, tech parks, and collaborative spaces. Additionally in line with the 13th Plan, partnerships with the civil society organizations, government agencies, and the private sector will encourage collaborative governance and local development planning.
  3. Agile policy development: Adoption of anticipatory governance approaches will create an agile, high-performing public service. One notable example of agile policy development practices implemented to achieve high-income status is the case of Estonia. Known as a global leader in digital transformation, Estonia has put forward and implemented the culture of policy experimentation through sandbox initiatives, agile legislation through a modular approach to rapidly respond to emerging issues and seize opportunities for economic growth. Leadership enhancement, professional development, and civil service well-being programs to be implemented during the 13th plan will also ensure an agile, high performing world class public service to achieve a holistic approach to agile policy development.
  4. Data-driven decision making: Leveraging on data to inform policy and driving economic growth is instrumental for Bhutan. Countries like South Korea have successfully integrated smooth service delivery especially in education, healthcare, and smart cities. Similarly, the 13th plan emphasizes the significance of utilizing data and statistics for foresight-oriented policy, planning, and service delivery. By emphasizing the availability and effective use of data, Bhutan can make informed decisions and develop more effective policies. UNDP’s support in macroeconomic modeling for policy making for the civil servants is one such example.
  5. Open governance and transparency: A whole-of-government, integrated public policy approaches identified for the 13th plan, regulatory sandboxing guidelines and real-time monitoring of policy implementation will promote transparency, accountability, and innovation in Bhutan. Open data initiatives, strategic public consultations for policy development and strengthening budget transparency mechanism will foster an environment of trust and accountability, and eventually contribute to Bhutan’s pursuit of developed status.
  6. Performance Management and Measurement: Creating robust performance management systems, long-term planning, and incorporating outcome-based budgeting are best practices in the global governance landscape. Adoption of a dynamic, responsive, and results-oriented policies incorporating monetary and reserve management, fiscal policy reforms, and results-based development planning approach are ways to ensure efficient performance management and measurement in the country. Changes to the existing performance management system outlined in this plan will be significant in achieving this goal.
  7. Resource mobilization through innovative mechanisms: As Bhutan looks at becoming a high-income country post LDC graduation, exploring innovative resource mobilization mechanisms has become a top priority. Countries like Rwanda are tapping into diaspora engagement, innovation and entrepreneurship support, domestic resource mobilization and leveraging on strategic partnerships to advance its economic development agenda. Promoting policies that encourage Foreign Direct Investments and implementing Public Private Partnerships in alignment with the activities outlined in the 13th plan, will ensure a conducive environment is created for sustainable economic development in the country. By implementing lean governance strategies, Bhutan can unlock its full economic potential, attract investments, create a favorable environment for efficient resource mobilization, innovative financing and drive sustainable development.

Looking ahead

The 13th Five Year Plan represents a significant milestone for Bhutan as it embraces an anticipatory planning approach for sustainable and long-term economic growth. The incorporation of citizen-centric and lean governance approaches within the plan’s transformative activities brings a renewed sense of optimism for the country and its people. As the journey continues, UNDP remains committed to supporting Bhutan through post-lab stakeholder consultations, sensitization workshops, and advocacy initiatives to achieve our shared goal of a healthy, prosperous, and secure Bhutan.

Cluster lab sessions. Photo: UNDP Bhutan/ Norbu Choksum Zangmo

Co-authored by Khurshid Alam, Deputy Resident Representative, Tshering Lhamo, Economist, Sonam Choki, Results Based Management Associate and Jigme Zangmo, National Consultant



UNDP Bhutan

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