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How to persuade politicians to back social innovation

I’m sometimes asked how to persuade politicians – ministers, prime ministers and presidents – to engage with social innovation and provide serious backing. Quite a few get interested for a time, perhaps because they meet a charismatic social entrepreneur or sense an interesting new fashion. But often that interest dissipates if all they see are a few small projects, and can’t work out how to link the new ideas to government machineries. 

I see two main ways to keep them interested and engaged. The first is to ensure clear links between smaller, experimental innovation projects and scaling. The world has some very large scale social innovations and much has been learned about how to achieve growth. Any strategy needs to be twin track – backing smaller projects on the one hand, and providing funds to scale ones that are already proven, whether within the country or internationally. 

The Nesta/Cabinet Office Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund is a good example of this. Its main task is to find projects that are already sufficiently developed to be demonstrably scalable, and then to provide money and support to help them grow, and to persuade the holders of public purse strings to commission them. 

We’ve also shown the wide variety of ways in which government institutions can make innovation part of their everyday work – from ‘innovation teams’ within the bureaucracy, to new approaches to evidence, finance, data and procurement. These aren’t always easy – but there is at least a comprehensive toolkit to draw on. Ministers understandably won’t have patience for programmes that only back small projects. If they can’t see a route to effecting millions of people they’re bound to switch off.

Narratives

The second set of answers involves linking social innovation more clearly to political narratives. Politicians will never see innovation as inherently good. It’s only ever a means to other ends. It follows that innovations need to be able to demonstrate their positive impact, and that they need to connect to broader political narratives. Here are a few types of narrative that make it easier to make sense of why innovation should be part of a governing strategy:

  • Connecting to the future. Politicians, demonstrating through their engagement with things like digital social innovation, open public data and entrepreneurs, that they have a feel for where the world is heading.
  • Practical problem solving. For any priority item on a political agenda it makes sense to combine a top down response (implementing policies) and a bottom up response (finding and supporting small and promising innovations). The policy narrative then says ‘yes we are acting fast to deal with the problem, but we are also nurturing what could be the most effective future solutions as well …’
  • Listening. Engaging the public in generating ideas, part of a tone of openness and humility. Again this stance only works if it’s combined with action, rather than being an alternative to doing things (as many in civil society have said, the only thing worse than never being consulted is being consulted all the time with no resulting actions).

Together these narratives, and an operational model that links experiment and scaling, can avoid the risks of hype and disappointment, hot air and failure.

Author

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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