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Escaping the expectations trap

I gave a keynote at the Blavatnik School’s annual gathering in Oxford this week. They asked me to talk about expectations in the context of a two day event on people, politics and power. Here’s what I said:

Talk to many commentators and politicians and they’ll tell you that expectations are rising fast, that governments cannot keep up, and that consequently democratic government may be condemned to perpetual disappointment.

That’s become a standard story. And it’s true that expectations in many fields are constantly rising – we expect the capabilities of computers or to a lesser extent cars for example to rise each year. But the expectations story doesn’t quite add up. There is some evidence that in countries like the US people now expect the next generation to be worse off than them. In relation to public services here in the UK, Ipsos MORI found ‘no clear-cut quantitative evidence that expectations have risen over time’. So I’m doubtful whether the public are really so unwisely optimistic as the standard story implies.

Aligning expectation with reality

If there was strong evidence that expectations were rising should we worry? One interesting finding from the recent PISA study on school results was that the best performing places - Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong – had very high expectations of all of their pupils, who then responded with hard work and application. Suggesting that a large minority will never be smart enough (the implication of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s recent speech on genetic endowments and intelligence) could be unnecessarily harmful.

A contrary view, however, sees high expectations as a problem, since if your expectations run ahead of reality you’re likely to end up miserable and disappointed.  Aggregate happiness data has long shown levels of well-being tending to fall in people’s 20s and 30s (as high expectations aren’t realised in careers). They hit a low point in the early 40s, and then start rising as peoples’ expectations align to reality. The implication for government is that you should do all you can to lower expectations. Your public will be happy if you meet expectations, even modest ones, and they’ll end up unhappy if you promise the earth. Look at Silvio Berlusconi who could never disappoint Italians with his ethical failings. By contrast, democratic South Africa was always bound to fall short.

There’s clearly some truth in both of these views – the one that advocates high expectations and the other that encourages promising little. But I want to suggest a different answer to the expectations gap.

Relationships and expectations

We only use the language of expectations where we don’t have a real relationship and where there is distance involved. It’s not a language that fits how most people think of their close family or friends – with whom we share life rather than thinking like a consumer. And it’s not a language that fits with really powerful social and political movements.  

It follows that if governments can build more authentic relationships with their citizens they may avoid the trap of inflated expectations and perpetual disillusion.

That’s also the message that comes from the relative failure of the ‘new public management’ methods that became fashionable in the 1980s and have continued spreading around the world ever since. These methods presumed that if governments achieved measurable targets and efficiency improvements they would win public gratitude. But even when they succeeded in hitting targets (and of course many of the NPM policies didn’t in the end deliver any efficiencies) they often failed to win public support.

A similar message comes from the rising importance of relationships in business (a topic I discuss in detail in my book The Locust and the Bee). It’s not enough to sell a useful product or service: the paraphernalia of CRM and targeting are also essential to tie in feelings of loyalty and connection. And of course, the importance of relationships is also integral to the value of  social media technologies.

I set out the logic of a more relational state in a paper on the subject last year, which attempted to diagnose what had gone wrong in many recent reform initiatives, and how future mistakes could be avoided. Many current Nesta projects are also fleshing out the thinking in this area:

  • Work in the open data field that is attempting to get beyond first generation hackathons and initiatives, to better understanding of what the public actually want and need.
  • The many i-teams (innovation teams in governments) using ethnographic and other methods to understand how the public experience public services, and then to tap into public creativity and problem solving (our joint work with Bloomberg Philanthropy on i-teams will be out next spring)
  • The Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund (a joint initiative between Nesta and the Cabinet Office) which is finding and supporting projects that mobilise citizen time and energy to achieve public service goals, in schools, hospitals, prisons and eldercare.
  • Our People Powered Health programme which has shown how patients and communities can play a much more decisive role in healthcare.
  • Work on the new ways complaints can be organised, and seen as helpful rather than annoying.
  • And research on the role of relationships in the detail of public service design – for example mobilising networks to combat obesity, or understanding patterns of diffusion of evidence and innovation, which shows the crucial role played by local networks.

These are beginning to point to new approaches to government – new skills, processes and cultures that put relationships centre stage.

They emphasise just how varied good relationships can be – in some cases what we most want is very efficient, very automated and very impersonal service (for example, to pay taxes or get a license). In other cases we want intense engagement.

In the talk to the Blavatnik School, I also discussed the role of democratic innovation (covered more extensively in this recent talk) which is in part a response to the same challenge – how to turn the democratic relationship from an occasional and distant one, prone to cycles of illusion and disillusion, into more of a continuous and adult relationship. A huge amount of innovation is underway, both top down and bottom up involving tools for participation and deliberation – and although it’s hard to guess which will succeed, the next decade will be a more interesting period for democratic design than any in recent memory.

My main conclusion was simple. If politicians and states pretend to be gods, and pretend that their citizens are children, then as sure as night follows day, disillusion will set in. If they go to the opposite extreme and remain stuck in permanent consultation – then we should also expect a pretty unhappy result.

But they could instead change the terms of the game, using some of the new tools described above. Mark Twain famously advised that if in doubt you should tell the truth: it will astound your friends and confound your enemies. Who knows, perhaps the same may be true of moves to relational governance.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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