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Mission-driven government: what’s the big idea?

This piece was first published on the New Statesman on 19 April 2024.

Big ideas in British politics come and go. David Cameron flirted with the Big Society, but became wedded to austerity. Boris Johnson popularised levelling up, without ever really explaining what it was or how he’d achieve it. Even Tony Blair’s Third Way was more compelling in defining what it was against than what it was for.

So far, Keir Starmer’s big idea is mission-driven government. Starmer’s five missions (economic stability and growth, clean energy, NHS reform, crime, and improving education), launched a year ago, are likely to be the organising idea for Labour’s manifesto. But how exactly should mission-driven government be put into practice?

Labour might begin by looking backwards – to what worked last time they were in power.

When I first worked in government in the late 1990s, I joined a team set up under Tony Blair called the Social Exclusion Unit. Although the language of missions did not exist then, the similarities in approach are striking. We set bold targets to reduce rough sleeping by two thirds, halve the number of teenage pregnancies, and reduce school exclusions by a third.

For each problem, we put someone in charge and created a unit that cut across departmental boundaries, with up to half the staff drawn from outside Whitehall. One of those outsiders was Louise Casey, brought in from the third sector to lead the rough sleeping drive, heading a multidisciplinary team with the power and resources to do whatever it took to achieve the target.

Although the targets were deliberately stretching, they forced those working on the issue to address root causes, rather than just ameliorate the problem. Government strategies typically consist of a list of initiatives with lofty objectives, with no sense of how they add up. But because we took the targets literally, rather than treating them as directions of travel, we attempted to quantify the effect of our policies and whether we were on the required trajectory to the goal. It was an approach that was adopted with great patience and skill by Michael Barber’s delivery unit, and implemented more widely across government because it worked – all three targets were met.

Some of the basic ingredients for mission-driven government can therefore be taken from the best work done under the last Labour administration. Focus on outcomes and results not inputs. Set stretching goals. Back teams by giving them the flexibility and resources to do whatever it takes to achieve the goal. Organise government around categories that make sense to citizens rather than traditional professional boundaries. Plot the trajectory to the goal, and constantly ask whether the strategy adds up. Get the best Whitehall talent and mix it equally with practitioners and outside experts from a range of disciplines.

In other respects, however, mission-driven government needs to depart from the New Labour playbook.

The mental model of how government operates assumes a neat division of labour between policy and implementation. Policies and plans are designed by civil servants in Whitehall. Incentives are created that will drive change either through targets and inspection or consumer choice and competition. Then once the hard work of policy formulation is done, responsibility for implementation is handed to organisations in the public and private sector. Politicians can declare victory after announcing a fully costed, step-by-step plan, safe in their belief that once the activities are delivered, the outcomes will surely follow.

But outside of government, leaders do not pretend to be quite so omniscient. Contemporary management is all about agility and iteration, not Horizon-style big IT projects. Elaborate plans are avoided. Ideas are prototyped and pivoted and solutions continually optimised. Less faith is placed in incentives alone to shape complex human and organisational behaviours.

We need public policy to become similarly experimental. Over the past decade, randomised trials, particularly in education, have brought the kind of scientific rigour to education research previously seen in pharmaceutical trials. This ethos of experimentation needs to be taken further. We need to test more radical changes. Experiments should be run continuously within mainstream public services, rather than separated into discrete one-off pilots or sandboxes. Policy should then be reverse-engineered based on the results of this frontline experimentation. More attention too should be paid to driving the adoption of solutions, rather than assuming this happens organically or via diktat.

Experimentation, of course, relies on data. The information we can now collect, combined with artificial intelligence, provides much richer insights. In real time, we can scour for schools, police forces and hospitals that are outperforming others and begin to understand why this is happening.

In the past, data was framed as a way of holding professionals to account rather than supporting learning. The assumption was based on a naive belief that professionals would respond to information and incentives alone. Professionals were often portrayed as the blockers of reform, with Blair lamenting the “scars on my back” from attempts to change the public sector.

Mission-driven government must take a different approach. The most important fuel for innovation will be the energy, creativity and knowledge of front-line staff. Since Covid, there appears to be a loss of discretionary effort, with staff too exhausted or drained to go above and beyond. Another round of public service reform “done to” people, rather than “with” them, will be counterproductive.

Mission-driven government therefore must be deliberative as well as technocratic – and not just with staff but with citizens too. Instead of token consultation processes with front-line staff or citizens, mission-driven government has to involve working in the open, drawing on the collective intelligence of all parts of the system, and engaging with citizens directly. If Labour is elected, it will face extraordinary challenges. Labour’s five missions offer the basis of a stable, long-term framework with clearly defined objectives. While political ideas often shine brightly and fade like fashions, the idea of mission-driven government has emerged for a reason. Done correctly, it could make our institutions of government more ambitious and more capable of learning and innovation.


Ravi Gurumurthy

Ravi Gurumurthy

Ravi Gurumurthy

Group Chief Executive Officer

Ravi Gurumurthy is Group Chief Executive Officer, joining Nesta as Chief Executive in December 2019.

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