Chief Executive of Nesta on the Future of Government Innovation

Interview between Rahim Kanani and Geoff Mulgan, CEO of NESTA and member of the MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance: “Our aspiration is to become a global center of expertise on all kinds of innovation, from how to back creative business start-ups and how to shape innovations tools such as challenge prizes, to helping governments act as catalysts for new solutions,” explained Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. In an interview with Mulgan, we discussed their new report, published in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, which highlights 20 of the world’s top innovation teams in government. Mulgan and I also discussed the founding and evolution of Nesta over the past few years, and leadership lessons from his time inside and outside government.
Rahim Kanani: When we talk about ‘innovations in government’, isn’t that an oxymoron?
Geoff Mulgan: Governments have always innovated. The Internet and World Wide Web both originated in public organizations, and governments are constantly developing new ideas, from public health systems to carbon trading schemes, online tax filing to high speed rail networks.  But they’re much less systematic at innovation than the best in business and science.  There are very few job roles, especially at senior levels, few budgets, and few teams or units.  So although there are plenty of creative individuals in the public sector, they succeed despite, not because of the systems around them. Risk-taking is punished not rewarded.   Over the last century, by contrast, the best businesses have learned how to run R&D departments, product development teams, open innovation processes and reasonably sophisticated ways of tracking investments and returns.
Kanani: This new report, published in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, highlights 20 of the world’s most effective innovation teams in government working to address a range of issues, from reducing murder rates to promoting economic growth. Before I get to the results, how did this project come about, and why is it so important?
Mulgan: If you fail to generate new ideas, test them and scale the ones that work, it’s inevitable that productivity will stagnate and governments will fail to keep up with public expectations, particularly when waves of new technology—from smart phones and the cloud to big data—are opening up dramatic new possibilities.  Mayor Bloomberg has been a leading advocate for innovation in the public sector, and in New York he showed the virtues of energetic experiment, combined with rigorous measurement of results.  In the UK, organizations like Nesta have approached innovation in a very similar way, so it seemed timely to collaborate on a study of the state of the field, particularly since we were regularly being approached by governments wanting to set up new teams and asking for guidance.
Kanani: Where are some of the most effective innovation teams working on these issues, and how did you find them?
Mulgan: In our own work at Nesta, we’ve regularly sought out the best innovation teams that we could learn from and this study made it possible to do that more systematically, focusing in particular on the teams within national and city governments.  They vary greatly, but all the best ones are achieving impact with relatively slim resources.  Some are based in central governments, like Mindlab in Denmark, which has pioneered the use of design methods to reshape government services, from small business licensing to welfare.  SITRA in Finland has been going for decades as a public technology agency, and more recently has switched its attention to innovation in public services. For example, providing mobile tools to help patients manage their own healthcare.   In the city of Seoul, the Mayor set up an innovation team to accelerate the adoption of ‘sharing’ tools, so that people could share things like cars, freeing money for other things.  In south Australia the government set up an innovation agency that has been pioneering radical ways of helping troubled families, mobilizing families to help other families.
Kanani: What surprised you the most about the outcomes of this research?
Mulgan: Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the speed with which this idea is spreading.  Since we started the research, we’ve come across new teams being created in dozens of countries, from Canada and New Zealand to Cambodia and Chile.  China has set up a mobile technology lab for city governments.  Mexico City and many others have set up labs focused on creative uses of open data.  A batch of cities across the US supported by Bloomberg Philanthropy—from Memphis and New Orleans to Boston and Philadelphia—are now showing impressive results and persuading others to copy them.