Minding the gap: The disconnect between government bureaucracies and cultures of innovation in scaling

The disconnect between government bureaucracies and cultures of innovation
Editor's note:

This blog is part of a series examining big research questions related to the scaling process in education.

Many contemporary practitioners and researchers tasked with bringing proven education innovations to scale around the world know that scaling is less a technical activity, but a mindset as much as an implementation process. As an adaptive mindset, scaling shares myriad characteristics with its close cousin: innovation. Both are complex and demand creative thinking, their outcomes are never fully predictable, and both require flexibility and engagement with the “what-ifs?” of life.

And, yet, to be supported at scale by government, most education innovations first must be adopted by public-sector decisionmakers—a group that lives within a decidedly bureaucratic culture.

The contradiction between the government mechanics of adopting innovations and the culture of implementing them becomes a central barrier to education innovations being adopted at scale.

Barriers to scale

Nayer, Saleh, and Minj (2016) point out that many governments decentralize power, which therefore requires that a new intervention gain acceptance across several sectors and personnel within a bureaucratic system. Decentralizing power is necessary for democracy, but for the logistics of implementing social science innovations it can be challenging. The authors also argue that government bureaucracies prioritize routines, precedent, and decision-trees, but innovations need flexibility and some organizational freedom to flourish. “By conforming to bureaucracies’ design and following the decision-making priorities that result,” they write, “civil servants can internalize and institutionalize a risk-averse behavioral culture. This is not conducive to scaling innovation (p. 5).” Similarly, Al-Ubaydli, List, and Suskind (2019) note that bureaucracies centralize efficiency, but innovators centralize effectiveness.

So, there lies the rub: The very conditions that social science innovations need in order to flourish are the conditions that public bureaucracies repel.

Generally speaking, policymakers tend to be failure-avoidant, linear thinkers while innovators in social sciences work in an atmosphere of experimentation and learning-by-doing. Successful innovations often need a few failures along the way as they’re implemented, adjusted, and embedded into widespread practice.

So, there lies the rub: The very conditions that social science innovations need in order to flourish are the conditions that public bureaucracies repel.

Compounding this disconnect is decades of technical-rational social science innovators who falsely promised governments that “scaling up” was a simple process. Suskind and List (2020) point out that previous generations of implementers in education, public health, and poverty alleviation convinced policymakers that “rolling out” an intervention was straightforward—and yet that was rarely true. The resulting failures cost policymakers significant money and reputational capital over the years. As a result, government decisionmakers are now reluctant to trust social science innovators, implementers, or researchers. As Suskind and List tell us: Each generation of errors makes it harder for contemporary innovators and implementers to get policymakers to listen to them.

We offer a few recommendations.

Closing the culture gap

For policymakers and other public-sector decisionmakers: Don’t hold the mistakes of old scaling paradigms against the newer models. Many contemporary teams working to implement proven education innovations at scale have learned from the past and see scaling as complex, contextualized, in need of widespread support, and unpredictable—but absolutely necessary if we’re to ameliorate intractable social problems. This new generation of scaling impact deserves a chance.

Additionally, public-sector decisionmakers can push against an understandable but sometimes self-defeating bureaucratic machinery that craves technical-rationality and risk-aversion. Finding the political will to go against the grain and inject some tolerance for unpredictability, course correction during implementation, and managed risk might be just what is needed to pry open rigid decisionmaking structures. We’re not advocating that governments gamble on untested innovations but rather that decisionmakers understand that if you are to trust a proven innovation, you will need to accept that implementing and scaling it for deep impact won’t be a quick, linear, error-free process.

For implementers and researchers of education innovations to scale: Recognize that national and regional decisionmakers don’t always share your mindset. Rather than reinforcing the binary, perhaps consider yourself teachers as much as implementers: What do decisionmakers need to know to feel comfortable supporting your innovation? What would it take to develop a scaling strategy from the beginning that foregrounds a continuous learning system, ongoing data collection, and realistic goals at each step? One that treads that middle path between being too tight (breaking like a branch that can’t bend in a storm) or too loose (sacrificing too much fidelity to the original innovation)? And how could you articulate the innovation to decisionmakers in new ways to get past the research jargon or technical details and adopt user-friendly, politically appealing, community-minded language? There is value to building personal relationships across the gap, prioritizing informal dialog (not only technical presentations), and acknowledging the bind into which bureaucracies often put decisionmakers.

If each side took some responsibility for the lacuna between the two cultures and consciously moved a few paces toward the middle, we might improve things. Government decisionmakers could accept that changing education systems requires some risk and a different procedural approach. Innovation implementers and researchers could thoughtfully plan for unpredictability; study and learn from scaling effects at all phases; and cultivate a broad network of partners and allies both before and during the scaling process.

Maybe, just maybe, this new generation of scaling impact as recursive and mutually adaptive can meet a new generation of public decisionmakers ready to loosen the nuts and bolts of their bureaucracies, and together, can ensure that promising interventions and education programs flourish.

The Center for Universal Education at Brookings is proud to be partnering with the Global Partnership for Education’s (GPE) Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), through the Research on Scaling the Impact of Innovations in Education (ROSIE) project, to explore scaling-related issues with national decisionmakers. In advance of our own research on the topic, we’ve been exploring the literature. In previous blogs, we considered how public-sector decisionmakers adopt innovations to scale and limitations of using pilot data We will continue sharing with you what we learn through ROSIE in the months ahead. In the meantime, we’re interested in hearing from those of you with experience in these matters: What have you tried and what’s worked best?


  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    This project is supported by of the Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), a joint partnership between the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of GPE, IDRC or its Board of Governors.


    Brookings is committed to quality, independence, and impact in all of its work. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment and the analysis and recommendations are solely determined by the scholar.