Ahead of the 25th European Social Services Conference (ESSC), ESN took the chance to speak with Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta - the UK’s Innovation Foundation, and keynote speaker at the conference to discuss public sector innovation.

Q: What is Nesta and how does its work contribute to public sector innovation?

A: I run Nesta, an innovation foundation based in London working globally with dozens of governments. Our mission is to promote innovation for the public benefit through investment, research, practical programmes and convening events.  But a major focus is helping the public sector to innovate more effectively. Most of our work is very practical – helping health systems reduce unnecessary admissions of the elderly, or helping cities make the most of data, or investing in social ventures that can improve peoples’ lives.

We also work to understand what’s happening around the world, both in the search for creative solutions and in the use of more rigorous evidence to discover what works.

In business, innovation contributes significantly to productivity growth. The same is likely to be true in the public sector. Any improvements in schooling, welfare or hospitals will come from new ideas and their implementation. If you don’t innovate you stagnate. This isn’t just a matter of money. It’s also about being trusted by the public, and making the most of the everyday technologies that the public are using in their own lives, like smart phones.  

“We need far more effective and systematic innovation to deal with the big challenges – from inequality to ageing, climate change to conflict.”

Q: How can innovation in the public sector be made more effective – what role can technology play in achieving this?

The public sector is often good at stifling innovation. Bureaucracies exist to make things predictable. So to overcome these barriers you need dedicated countermeasures.  Innovation should be built into how budgets are allocated, how staff are appraised and promoted. In my view all public agencies should be held to account not just for what they’re doing in the present but also for how well they’re preparing for the future. In the paper ‘How can Public Organisations Better Create, Improve and Adapt?’   I set out more comprehensively what this means. 

My hope is that innovation will become as normal and mainstream in the public sector as it is in the leading sectors of business. There it’s taken for granted that you must invest not just in Research & Development but also in design or new organisational models. I hope we will see more dedicated teams and units; a bigger flow of money into innovation of all kinds; and much more global learning.  And I hope that we will all become much better at tapping into the public’s collective intelligence as well.  To my mind that is the future of democracy as well as of government – that we learn how to govern with the people and not just for them.  My book ‘the art of public strategy’ tried to provide a rough road map. I believe that government has a huge power to do good – but too often slips into complacency and inertia.

Q: Nesta’s work also focuses on the use of data and evidence in government - how can evidence-based practice and innovation complement one another to improve local public services?

Evidence and innovation are complementary. Most people most of the time should concentrate on implementing the best available proven practice. To help them we’ve supported the creation of a network of a dozen ‘what works’ centres in the UK which aim to distil useful knowledge in ways that a busy head teacher or social worker can use.

But if we only implemented existing evidence stagnation would result. So there also needs to be systematic investment in innovation to discover new knowledge – making the most of maturing technologies from smart phones to artificial intelligence, or responding to changing needs, like the epidemic of isolation in many places.  I’ve recommended in the past that at least 1% of budgets should go to innovation – to help systems continually improve.  Increasingly in the future we need data and evidence to evolve in tandem, with constant experiment and trials of small adjustments to find out what works best.

Q: Social and health care are facing huge challenges with increasing demand coupled with funding cuts – what latest innovations has Nesta been supporting which are helping to tackle these challenges? 

We’ve been involved in many different innovations focused on health and care.  For example, working with whole systems to reduce unnecessary hospital admissions of the frail elderly, which has required a complete change to roles, triage, handling of data, and shifting much more to prevention at home.  We’re running a social impact bond to reduce isolation in another area – again mobilising a wide range of community resources to complement professional healthcare – as well as many experiments using digital tools to link people together and help them support each other. Another recent example is GoodSam – this is an app that mobilises volunteer medics to complement the ambulance service by helping people suffering heart attacks or other problems. Its already saving many lives and like many of the best social innovations is free for anyone around the world to use and adapt. 

You can hear more on Nesta and Geoff Mulgan’s work when he speaks during the opening round table of the ESSC in Valletta on 26th June. This opening session will explore the importance of innovation in the public sector, how it can be made more effective and the role of technology.

To find out more about the event and to book your place, please visit www.essc-eu.org.