About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Rethinking risk

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the world was changing rapidly all around us, our first point of non-urgent medical care in Scotland had to change fast. And it did. The rapid national rollout and adoption of the NHS Near Me digital consultation service in response to the pandemic in Scotland is an example of a successful and scalable social innovation in a complex sector where previously change at such pace had seemed impossible.

The pandemic required a crisis response. For NHS Near Me and other ambitious examples such as the rapid housing of homeless people (albeit temporarily), the usual political and financial risks were reframed and barriers to action and bureaucracy were removed. There was an acceptance across government and public services that the greater risk was in not acting.

When we consider long-standing social problems such as child poverty and the widening gap between life outcomes for our population that creates deepening health inequalities, not acting radically should be viewed as the greater risk. Scotland’s response to the climate emergency, including decarbonising home heating, is another area where not acting radically and ambitiously should not be an option and where any further delay carries its own political, economic, environmental and social risks.

To take the action that we know we must take, we need an approach within our public institutions and public services which enables better management of risk.Nesta’s work on how to reframe risk in public services, sets out the need for a different and more experimental leadership culture, commissioning and auditing process for our public services.

Thinking more radically

It can seem counterintuitive for innovation and risk to be allowed in an operating environment where public money is being spent and services are engaging with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Especially when one of the principal foundations of public policy and public services is often to “do no harm”. However, rigorous innovation practices such as behavioural science, data science and collective intelligence can help us to better manage risk by shedding light on unintended consequences of policies or by demonstrating the public will to push our ambitions further.

Risk management in our public services too often limits the kind of social innovation we need by focusing on organisational risks, such as financial or reputational issues, far more than on wider societal risks, such as not dealing with the root causes and drivers of systemic disadvantage and disempowerment. Due attention to organisational risk in public services is of course important, not least for public accountability. But too often it can seem like it comes at the expense of new approaches to complex social challenges and the potential for better, longer-term social outcomes.

Audit Scotland regularly monitors and reviews risk across public services in Scotland. The Auditor General, writing last year on the tenth anniversary of the Christie Commission, said: “We all need to think more radically about how we measure success and hold organisations to account.”

“We all need to think more radically about how we measure success and hold organisations to account.”

Auditor General for Scotland

Given this appetite from Scotland’s national auditors, there is an exciting opportunity to look at testing a set of indicators that could give local authorities and public agencies more confidence in taking or testing innovative approaches to deliver social impact.

In Scotland currently, we are not driving the scale or pace of change we want. We know we can do better when we remove barriers to action. We need to be honest about that and enable local service providers and their partners to take more managed risks and think creatively about how to achieve tangible impact. In a small nation with big social policy ambitions we should have a clearer sense of who is responsible and empowered to do what. Local authorities and local communities should be better enabled to identify and act on new solutions to the challenges they face.

Changing the narrative on Scotland’s major social challenges

Serious problems require creative thinking – a seismic shift in how we frame these problems could help us come up with more effective solutions

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Adam Lang

Adam Lang

Adam Lang

Head of Nesta Scotland

Adam led the work of Nesta in Scotland, working across missions, practices and partnerships to deliver impact against our strategic objectives in Scotland.

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