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Innovation in policy: allowing for complexity and uncertainty in government

Today's global financial and social crises demand innovation not only in public services, but within the whole bureaucratic, administrative system of public governance. Yet innovation introduces uncertainty and unpredictability into decision-making which can sit uncomfortably with the status quo. What are new principles for decision-making that can be more conducive to innovation in the public sector?

Whether as a politician, civil servant, frontline worker or any other kind of decision-maker taking an active part in public governance, the notion of 'crisis' will be a familiar one. Whether in financial terms in relation to sharp reductions in budgets, in the changing shape of the public sector and the landscape for public service delivery or in face of challenges such as an ageing population or a rise in long-term health conditions that require thinking differently about the means of government and public services to respond, the sense of crisis is often seen as a 'mobilising metaphor' for innovation.

But the concept of innovation is not in itself a course of action. Rather, innovation implies a process of further discovery, creativity and exploration in developing new ways to respond to problems. In supporting the development of new models of public service delivery such as engaging people more directly in their own health care or systems that allow care workers to share information more intuitively, we often see the challenges of trying to demonstrate the value of the new approach and make it work within existing systems of bureaucracy, financing and decision-making. This presents innovators with a dilemma: on the one hand, how can we legitimise and validate innovative approaches through existing measures and standards? But on the other hand, how far should we try to challenge the default processes for decision-making and validating action? 

A few weeks ago, we co-hosted a seminar with colleagues at Danish innovation agency MindLab to discuss the implications of dealing with the uncertainty and unpredictability of innovation in the context of the public sector, and the practical challenges in trying to marry innovation with the practice of policymaking as understood as 'the rational guidance of human affairs'. In a paper published this week co-authored by Jesper Christiansen and myself, we wanted to explore what kinds of public sector processes could be more conducive to innovation in all of its complexity, and respond productively to the current state of crisis by creating an enabling environment for innovation. 

How does focusing on outcomes rather than distinct solutions encourage a more ongoing, iterative approach to responding to problems rather than seeing public problems as something to be 'fixed'? In addressing issues that are complex or where causation is unknown - such as in the model of working with elderly people adopted in Fredericia, one of the case studies in the paper - identifying and having an impact on outcomes is part of a continuous practice of addressing and working on the problem with those for whom the outcomes is intended. How might this reframe expectations of what governments can and should achieve? How should government relate to citizens and others in coproducing outcomes? What is the right basis for decision-making in these contexts? 

Furthermore, innovation in the public sector context often brings a connotation of risk. Innovation, in that its outcome is unknown and unpredictable, is seen as risky in contrast to known, predictable outcomes (and familiar failures) of current practices whether or not they are successful. But what if we could turn this on its head, and see informed experimentation as the responsible foundation for decision-making in complex settings? Where is there an opportunity for applying structured methods for experimentation, such as prototyping and 'beta' development to learn from practice in a more dynamic way? How can policy responses become more 'perfectible'?

These are the sorts of questions we try to explore in the paper, and questions we will discuss in individual posts on this blog over the next few weeks. These ideas are very much the product of many different discussions and interactions over the past few years, not least from Jesper's PhD research and recent seminars at MindLab and at Nesta. We have been struck by how much resonance these questions have had with people's experience, and how much appetite there is for discussing these issues. We hope the paper provides a basis for further debate and challenge, and please do share any thoughts ([email protected]). 


Laura Bunt

Laura Bunt

Laura Bunt

Lead Policy Advisor, Public and Social Innovation

Laura was Nesta'’s lead policy advisor for public and social innovation until November 2013. She joined Nesta's Policy and Research team in 2009 focusing on social innovation and inn...

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