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The Art of Exit: Tackling the challenge of decommissioning in public services

Laura Bunt outlines Nesta’s new report the ‘Art of Exit’ – exploring the role of creative decommissioning in public services – and reflects on some of the key themes emerging from the launch event.

Exit, closure, decommissioning; these are challenging issues to explore in the context of public services.

The prospect of closing down a hospital, a prison or a school, decommissioning social care or homelessness services or exiting from a previous role understandably provokes strong reactions from the public, local community, politicians and existing providers invested in what is in place.

The disruption, political opposition and job loss likely to result from these decisions creates aligned incentives to protect and build upon current forms of provision.

Yet if innovation is really going to transform public services, it is important to try and grapple with these issues and to explore how the public sector can decommission better.

The art of exit

In the current financial climate, innovation that remains marginal or additive to existing services is no longer affordable. Bringing innovation into the core of public services means addressing the challenging question of what we need to stop doing, and how to redirect resources elsewhere.

This is the premise of The Art of Exit - a report Charlie Leadbeater and I launched at Nesta yesterday that explores how public services approach decommissioning as part of their efforts to innovate.

Drawing lessons from case studies across social care, health, justice, education, housing and other contexts, the report includes a model of 'creative decommissioning' that conceptualises this difficult and contentious process as a critical part of managing change and transformation.

This is not a technical guide to how to decommission, nor is it about managing cuts.

In writing this report, we have been struck by how rarely decommissioning is discussed in the context of service improvement and innovation, and how little guidance there is on how to overcome the real barriers to decommissioning in the public sector.

However, our cases and research indicates that this can and should be a strategic and productive part of how public services respond to future challenges.

Talking about decommissioning

Two issues framed much of the debate at the event: firstly, the extent to which decommissioning is often more about politics than process, and the key role of both local and national politicians in shaping the direction of change.

Often when we discuss innovation in public services we emphasise the value of creative methods such as design, prototyping or visualisation tools; in this instance, discussion leaned towards the bigger picture and the impact of political process and decision-making.

Secondly, how critical the role of evidence and information, both to provide challenge to the status quo and to build an alliance of support around the value of the new approach.   

Our aim with this work is to explore the practice, purpose and experience of decommissioning and to develop new tools and insights to help guide those trying to navigate this space.

We hope that this report starts to build collective knowledge and skills around this aspect to innovation.

Please get in touch if you'd like to help us to do so.


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 innov…

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