Job: New operating models for public services

At Nesta, we’re currently searching for a new Programme Manager to join the Government Innovation team (closing date: 24 September 2017). A major part of that role will be managing our ShareLab Fund, which supports organisations to develop and test​ new business models that make an impact on social issues.

A related, but additional, aspect of the role will involve exploring new operating models for public services, either reforming what public sector organisations do themselves, or how the same community needs can be addressed by others. Below, I set out the rationale for this work.

Necessity, the mother of invention

The era of austerity has put extraordinary pressure on public services. The English local government sector alone faces a funding gap greater than £10bn by 2020.

In response to this situation, three things seem evident.

First, business as usual is not an option. No set of organisations could face this level of budget reduction and continue as normal. Second, the era of salami slicing back on public services is over. Nearly all the low hanging fruit for efficiencies has already gone. Third, we are now at the point when some core public services face a stark choice: either they will have to be switched off, or we need to fundamentally rethink the way they work.

In truth, that’s no choice at all.

Some more efficient and effective ways of working are already well established: shared services, prediction and prevention, and so on. But given the scale of the challenge, it’s now urgent that serious thought and experimentation happen on radical, new operating models that enable us to fundamentally reimagine how services are delivered. After all, it’s unrealistic to ask public sector organisations to cease old ways of doing things and adopt new models unless there are some viable alternatives to move to.

Inspiration for elements of new those models may come from many different trends, sources and sectors. To give just a small selection of potential examples:

1 - Individual privatisation A growing number of people are opting out of some public services by using pay-per-use services enabled by apps. For example, Push Doctor allows any UK citizen to have a GP consultation via video chat on their smart phone, often within minutes. The low cost and convenience of services like Uber encourages people who may once have used a late night bus service to hail a car instead. For some, this development is desirable. For others, it represents a slippery slope towards the end of free services that must be discouraged at all costs. Might these early forays offer some lessons for other public sector areas?

2 - Energy sector approach to tackling peak demand The energy sector has conducted a considerable amount of work on demand management to even out requirements for energy. This has enabled them to deliver the same amount of power with fewer resources. Could public sector organisations use similar techniques (as I recently explored in this article)?

3 - Nursery and care homes combined Pilots conducted in the USA have indicated that the mental and physical well being of some elderly people may be improved when they have regular contact with young children, who benefit, in turn, by being supported by retirees. One such institution that combines a retirement home and nursery has been set up in London and was covered in a recent BBC documentary. Could match-making of groups with complementary needs work elsewhere?

4 - Buurtzorg’s distributed model of community nursing This model, first started in the Netherlands, shows how a traditional model of service delivery (front line workers managed and supported by several layers of administration) can be outperformed by a radically decentralised version with a tiny back office staff. Results are better and public service morale is boosted. Could it work beyond nursing?

5 - Budget airlines and hotels The travel and accommodation sectors have shown how industries with high fixed costs can completely reform themselves to offer very low cost transactional services, by offering ‘no frills’ options. Could any of these techniques apply to public services?

6 - ShareLab Nesta’s ShareLab programme aims to support organisations to develop and test​ new operating models that can make an impact on addressing social issues. We are currently supporting eight early stage organisations that are based on collaborative digital platforms. The intention is that the experiences of these organisations will help us understand how such models can work in other areas, too.

Nesta… and you?

While these may represent potential sources of inspiration, applying their best characteristics to public sector challenges will never be a simple case of copy and paste. Some new models entail serious implications for the role and status of public sector staff and the services themselves, which need to be thoroughly examined. There is room for experimentation, yes; but not for naively proposing 'Uber for social care'.

As both a ‘think’ and ‘do’ tank, Nesta is well placed to develop this field. We’ve already been involved in a number of projects that can help inform this work, from Rethinking Parks to ShareLab, and from our Radical Efficiency Guide to Innovate to Save. Yet there’s much more for us to explore and learn.

Our aim is to identify the most viable new operating models so that they can be tested and scaled in the real world, offering public sector organisations a real chance to respond to the huge challenges they face.

Applications now closed.

Find me on Twitter


Eddie Copeland

Eddie Copeland

Eddie Copeland

Director of Government Innovation

Eddie was Nesta's Director of Government Innovation.

View profile