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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.

A mission-oriented approach to the UK skills system

With its complexity and uncertainty, the skills system exhibits many of the properties of grand challenges - a wicked problem that cannot be solved by one actor or a single solution. Challenges in the skills system include things like vulnerable groups not participating in upskilling, lower female participation in the workforce, and pay gaps due to credential issues amongst certain ethnic groups. What’s more, COVID-19 is creating more complex problems (e.g. accelerated automation and the increased unemployment of the elderly), while the transition to a net zero economy in the UK by 2050 will mean new challenges will emerge for those working in ‘brown jobs’.

These sticky problems will not go away without a coordinated effort from across government and other partners in the skills system

Fixing these barriers can bring significant socioeconomic benefits to the UK, and help power its competitiveness for the economy of the future.

The problem isn’t a lack of policies to fix many of these issues, but there is a lack of coordination within government and the skills system to bring together the solutions that could tackle these challenges. This is where a mission-oriented approach can help.

Missions work with a network of different institutions, and use a suite of coordinated interventions, to tackle different aspects of the grand challenge in a direct way. The UK is already using this approach for its Grand Challenges in the Industrial Strategy. Nesta has developed key steps of a mission, which can be used as a framework for this new approach and applied to the skills system (Mariana Mazzucato and the Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose have also written extensively on missions - and you can see their beginner’s guide for missions here).

A mission-oriented approach to the UK skills system

Defining missions

To help unlock the imagination and creativity of citizens, missions should aim to solve problems using collective intelligence. This means identifying challenges, co-creating solutions and evaluating policies through a transparent and meaningful process with the relevant actors (see Nesta’s Open Policymaking Playbook). The resulting missions must be concrete and time bound. Mission examples for the skills system include:

Convening communities

These are the kinds of sticky issues that require coordinated support from educators, employers and many different parts of government. They are not being fixed by a passive approach of policies that do not seek to make change, or actively coordinate with other parts of the policy mix. This is what needs to change for a mission-oriented approach to succeed.

The resulting missions must bring together different communities to help tackle aspects of the broader grand challenge. This convening process is different from defining missions because it requires more long term commitment from participating organizations in working to tackle the challenges. The Digital Skills Partnership is an excellent example of this in the UK. Change will not happen overnight but long-term funding, commitment, and other support is necessary to develop breakthroughs across the system.

It also requires more formal governance structures to help these groups work across silos. If there was a single organization to coordinate the skills system, it would be best placed to run this mission-oriented approach.

Choosing the right policy mix

The resulting policy mix should increase coordination, and look to target new intervention points - places “where a small change in one thing can produce big changes in everything” across the system. Challenges like these require investments both in technology and in new ways of organising society - as Nesta recommends for a new Advanced Research Projects Agency. However, this might not require new funding, but using existing initiatives in a more directed way. There won’t be one panacea, so the Government must experiment with different tools to make a real change. Examples of how this might work include:

  • Use Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to develop and procure new ed-tech;
  • Open up and share relevant data to help cities and regions to develop solutions for addressing local skills challenges;
  • Experiment with different ways of upskilling people (e.g. Nesta’s FutureFit program) or ed-tech (e.g. Nesta’s EdTech Innovation Testbed) to identify best practices;
  • Use the British Business Bank to scale-up successful ed-tech companies or upskilling organizations;
  • Change the targets of the education sector to include a greater emphasis on underrepresented groups, like is being considered in emphasizing apprenticeships over higher education;
  • Use challenge prizes to address complex issues across the skills system (e.g. the CareerTech Challenge Nesta is running with DfE); and
  • Have the National Skills Fund and the National Retraining Scheme develop streams for focusing on the mission-related issues.

Ultimately, we might not need to reinvent the wheel, but do need to coordinate things better and have deliberate actions from existing programs to move the dial.

Optimising processes

Just designing a mission is not enough. Evaluation helps to understand, improve, and justify government activities, as well as signpost areas for improvement or where to direct resources. This requires more in-depth evaluation frameworks than have been used for traditional organizations, which have focused on cost benefit analysis and techniques that rely on creating a market price for policy interventions. Particularly when coordinating with other organizations, evaluators should make an explicit attempt to evaluate that interplay.

Experimenting with best practices for mission-oriented policies

Nesta’s work experimenting with best practices for mission-oriented policies can help to inform this process. Through the Innovation Growth Lab, Nesta is working with countries around the world to explore different techniques for defining missions, convening communities, choosing the right policy mix, and optimizing processes.

To learn more about our efforts, visit our FutureFit project page – a major training intervention focused on upskilling and reskilling workers and doing innovative, robust research about what works.


Charles McIvor

Charles McIvor

Charles McIvor

Policy Adviser, Future of Work

Based in Nesta's Research, Analysis and Policy team, Charles conducted policy analysis regarding the impact of technology on work and jobs.

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