Global Innovations in Governance: Learning Lessons from the United Kingdom

Innovations in the public sector create transnational opportunities for countries to learn from one another. The U.K. pursued innovation in government earlier than other countries. In 1997, Nesta, an independent charity working to increase innovation capacity in the U.K., was originally set up as a non-departmental public body, and then became a charity in 2012 to ensure its longevity. Since then it has developed fellowships, published research, and education materials for creative adoption of science, technology, and the arts. As discussed on this blog earlier, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Nesta, recently released a global “i-teams” report highlighting 20 government innovation teams across the world. This report is an illustrative guide for practitioners and public officials throughout all levels of government who seek to spur innovation in the public sector.

A recent interview with Ruth Puttick—Nesta’s former Principal Researcher for public and social innovation—sheds light on what government officials throughout the world may learn from Nesta. This includes the importance of local context, the need for impact measurements systems, and ensuring that innovation does not lead to disengagement by others.

What is the Structure of Nesta?

Nesta is a charity which works with a range of partners, including companies, governments, and other foundations, such as Bloomberg Philanthropies.

What Were Your Roles and Responsibilities While at Nesta?

I joined the Nesta policy and research team in 2009. I spent a year or so working across all the areas of work, covering investment and growth in the private sector, the creative industries and public and social innovation.

After the first year I moved to the public and social innovation section of the policy and research team. There I worked on a range of projects, from writing a submission for the Scottish government on preventative investment, to looking at the implication of government budgets, and a range of other topics alongside.

I became very interested in the intersection between innovation and evidence. How can we have a functioning innovation system, where we identify the most promising ideas, back them and ensure the most effective programs are those which are grown and scaled more broadly, in the absence of robust impact data? And balanced against this, how do you ensure that evidence doesn’t hinder innovation? Can we create a meaningful standard for what good evidence looks like, but without crushing nascent, early stage ideas?

To help explore these questions I launched a campaign and knowledge sharing network called the Alliance for Useful Evidence. This now has over 2,000 members from across a range of policy areas, from health to policing, and covering the private, public, and third sectors.

Alongside thinking that we need a network to help share the best ways to generate and share evidence, and to ensure that it has a more central part of decision making, at Nesta we also recognized the need to help create the structures in government to ensure that knowledge is available to be acted upon.

Using the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) as an aspiration, and a metaphor, we explored what similar structures could look like in other sectors. This led to the UK government creating the What Works network of evidence centers.

I also worked with colleagues to explore ways in which we could improve how we generated and used evidence at Nesta. Part of this involved developing a Standards of Evidence framework for our Impact Investment fund, which is now used across all the practical work in the Nesta Innovation Lab. In addition, this framework has also informed how Pearson PLC will evaluate their global product range.

This interest in government structures for innovation was further explored in i-teams, a report I co-authored with Nesta colleagues, and which was co-funded with Bloomberg Philanthropies. This research involved 90 interviews, a survey and extensive desk research to analyze innovation funds, teams and units at a national, regional and city level in governments across six continents.

What was the Most Surprising Thing you Encountered?

I think one of the most surprising things for me early on was the sheer number and variety of these structures. This really is a global phenomenon.

One of my presumptions, or hypotheses, was that there would be similarities across them in terms of size, location in government, or methods used. When in fact each innovation team was configuring a unique mix of resourcing, staffing, leadership, methods, impact measurement, and partnerships, to achieve impact for their city, region, or national government.

What Lessons Have You Learned About Innovation Units?

In the i-teams report we outline 10 recommendations for others to emulate, ranging from being specific about their initial focus, selecting a core method or approach, through to developing a robust impact measurement strategy.

Since the report I have also written about the need for these teams not to take responsibility for innovation. This might sound strange, but if a team is tasked with “doing innovation” it is too easy for the rest of government to disengage, to think that innovation is taken care and simply tick it off the priority list. I’d go so far as simply setting up a team to “do innovation” is setting them up to fail. Providing the capacity, insights, method and tools can be a role that innovation teams play, but delivery of new and better practice is ultimately the responsibility for the rest of government.

Moving Forward, What Would you be Most Excited to See in This Space?

I think it would be exciting to see more and better impact measurement systems embedded in the work of these teams, and shared and diffused across governments more broadly. Some of the innovation teams we studied in i-teams had incredibly robust evaluation strategies for projects, and a couple could also ascertain the impact of the team overall. But sadly this was too rare. There is still a real sense that measuring the impacts of innovation is difficult, and this is something that needs to be overcome.

For more information read the following NESTA reports: