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The grammar of good government - or why prepositions matter

I did a talk at the Blavatnik School’s annual conference on government, recently. The subject I was asked to talk about was how to bridge the expectations gap in public services and restore public trust.

I chose to address the question by talking about the importance of prepositions, which sounds odd, but bear with me.

The point I was trying to make is that there cannot be a single answer to the question of how to improve citizens' relationships with governments, any more than there can be a single answer to the question of how you can improve your relationship with your parents, children or partner.  

Instead, prepositions point us to the important distinctions.

FOR In some cases governments act for the public. They try to provide clean air, fire services, defence, and do so with a mix of tools, from spending to regulation. In these cases our relationship is indirect. We want quiet efficiency, order, predictability and reliability, and governments which are smart enough to cope with complex causes and solutions.

TO Then there are the things governments do to people. They tax us, and provide us with licenses or passports. Here again the ideal is not so hard to define. We generally want efficiency, minimum friction, speed, and often we crave an ideal of simplicity so that we don’t have to think too much about these things.

WITH Then there are the things governments have to do with us. They can’t make us healthy, wealthy or wise. Instead healthcare, economic growth and education have to be partnerships. Governments can provide some of the enabling conditions and tools, but we have to do much of the work. These relationships can be more intense, more intimate, and more subtle, and mediated by professionals who work on behalf of the state. Often we want to be treated as individuals with distinct needs and capabilities, and often we want a say in how we’re treated.

BY Finally there are the things which are done by the people, while still involving government. These can be decisions – like the shift to participatory budgeting, giving the people a say on how money is spent (as cities like Paris, and countries like Portugal, are doing). They can involve time - like the dozens of projects we at Nesta support through the Centre for Social Action, which mobilise public time to improve schools, hospitals or criminal justice.

Good governments become fluent in all of these points and avoid the risk of a category error. Such errors are common.

It’s still a very common category error to believe that everything can be done to and for the public

An over-reliance on performance management methods, and methods adopted from mass-scale business services, turned a sensible insight into an error when it led governments (and bodies like the World Bank) to believe that everything could be ‘delivered’ to a grateful public.

It’s equally a category error to take ‘with’ too far, as if the public wants to be endlessly consulted about every detail of policy. Life’s too short for that. Anarchism is the extreme of ‘by’, while traditional authoritarianism is the extreme of ‘for’.

Prepositions matter. Understanding their differences is the beginning of wisdom. Become good at all of these and adept at how to achieve government for, to, with, and by the public you serve, and the relationship can be happy and full of delight. It can even lead, just occasionally, to that rarest of things, gratitude.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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