If you can’t afford a DARPA, what could you do instead?
But it’s very easy to tell people what not to do. But having smugly said that DARPA-clones are generally not a good idea, I ought to at least try to provide an alternative.
So then, if a government or department wants to make a big push on innovation, doesn’t have enough money to set up a DARPA ($3bn+), and is willing to consider new institutions – what should it do instead?
Let’s consider some of the appealing aspects of DARPA we might want to copy in whatever we do:
At the same time, we can’t run an operation as big and as blue-sky as DARPA itself, since (as we discussed in the last post), this requires a scale and a risk tolerance that most governments don’t have.
Thinking about this, we came up with a more practical alternative, which we’ve tentatively called the Advanced Systems Agency (suggestions for a better name gladly received).
The point of an Advanced Systems Agency is (a) to tie together innovation policy efforts in a particular department or field with wider policy goals, to encourage radical innovation and (b) to build links between a department’s long-term strategy and procurement plans with innovations and developments going on in the wider world.
The key elements are:
It’s not just what the organization does that matters, it’s also how it does it. This requires political support and the right skills.
Political endorsement is important if the agency is to be able to work effective with the Department’s wider plans and strategy. Otherwise it’s likely to be ignored. So it’s really only worth attempting if innovation is a priority for the Secretary of State responsible for the area, and if s/he is willing to give it this kind of support.
It also matters because innovative procurement and research involve some risk – both of being seen to have wasted money if things don’t work out (which innovation sometimes doesn’t), or of having procured something improperly (since delivering innovation is not the primary objective of procurement law).
What’s more, this kind of systemic innovation policy is relatively long-term relatively hard to evidence, at least compared to more mechanical interventions like R&D tax credits. This takes some political confidence: if all you have from your finance ministry is a year’s cash and a demand for a successful RCT within 12 months, this is not the policy for you.
The team also needs the right skills. It goes without saying that technical expertise is indispensable. But a team of only technical experts will not do a good job of running and Advanced Systems Agency.
The team also needs to be good at building networks (Oli Barrett’s idea of a government networker springs to mind here), and at plugging into the wider strategy of the department and the sector, which requires policy skills. The mix of government insiders and outsiders brought together in the Government Digital Service, or, looking further back, in Partnerships UK, could be one way to do this.
So there it is: if you want a DARPA, but can’t afford the lavish expenditure required, don’t build a half-heartedly copy. Try an Advanced Systems Agency instead. Though perhaps you may want to think up a better name for it.
This kind of policymaking is very difficult to evidence. New innovation institutions are complex interventions, and therefore hard to evaluate. (If you’re interested in the overall evidence for innovation policies, check out the review we worked on with the University of Manchester.) So this proposal is necessarily somewhat speculative.