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Rethinking missions as governance: Transforming government to transform society

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By Iacopo Gronchi

· 7 min read

Between January and April 2022, the World Bank’s energy price index rose by 26.3%. In Europe and the US this affected low-income households the most, and in Asia it culminated in the occupation of Sri Lanka’s presidential palace. These images may be reminiscent of the 1970s oil crisis: and yet, it is in our recent past that they have their deepest roots. In recent years, governments did not invest in clean energy as much as they could have. Rather, after what appears now as a ‘decade of missed opportunities’, OECD countries are still spending almost as much on fossil energy as on clean energy.

Now, governments are under pressure to prove they have learnt from the past. Following the approval of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda; the threat of climate change illustrated by IPCC; the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis; and the energy and food crisis borne from the Russian aggression of Ukraine, governments sought new policy tools to transform society. It is amidst these developments that mission-oriented innovation policy (MOIP) has emerged.

The premise behind MOIP is clear: against current challenges, traditional innovation policy is broken. Our times prove that neither R&D tax credits, nor better infrastructures for academia-industry cooperation alone will lead us out of the energy crisis. It has also now become evident that innovation only at the technological frontier is not enough: it needs to be contextualised across and adapted for diverse societal spheres, geographies, industrial domains, and human needs.

Mission-oriented policy and its rise

Against this background, the rise of MOIP helped highlight that innovation is political: its direction, purpose, and ownership are critical in determining our ability to govern current transformations for public purpose. By doing so, MOIP expanded the scope of innovation policy from the technoscientific to societal realm — environment, work, welfare, education — and advocated for public action to adopt principles of directionality; orchestration; collaboration; experimentation; and cross-pollination.

This view of innovation policy rapidly gained an impressive amount of attention from decision-makers worldwide. Within a decade, MOIP informed the latest European Commission’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe programme; it has been experimented with by several governments — including Germany, Japan, Netherlands; and has been debated in international forums — including the OECD, World Economic Forum, and World Health Organization. Yet, major doubts still remain around its ability to yield meaningful results.

Crucially, most of these doubts do not question its logic, but its implementation. This year, 227 MOIP practitioners from 40+ OECD countries were asked to define their challenges. Of them, only one in four had a defined target; fewer than one in six had a dedicated structure for its governance; and only one in 10 had developed a plan and process for its monitoring.

Mission-oriented policy and its barriers

Figures like the above should not be surprising at all. MOIP’s promise to rewire public action at large fundamentally challenges how governments work. Electoral cycles, governmental silos, low public sector capabilities and limited room for collaboration with societal stakeholders pose radical obstacles to how its potential is eventually translated into action. In a recent white paper, my colleagues and I at Demos Helsinki, a non-profit, independent think tank researching and consulting on societal transformations, explored current MOIP initiatives to map how close theory is to practise.

What emerged — as it turns out — is that there is no one single way to implement MOIP. Rather, what empirical data show is a broad variety of distinct ways through which countries fashioned key principles in order to fit different purposes. It is still too early to determine their outcomes. However, there are three major hurdles to MOIP practice.

First, the ambiguity around the concrete implications of MOIP for public action leaves policymakers without clear ideas for how to put it in practice. Second, in the lack of clear ways forward, incrementalism often becomes the go-to approach to embed new policy rationales into old tools and initiatives. Third, as a result, mission-washing — a mismatch between the use of the ‘mission-oriented’ label and the lack of real policy change — materialises as a risk for initiatives that do incorporate transformative narratives, but ultimately result only in modest impact. For MOIP practitioners, those hurdles should be seen for what they are: an alarm bell for its theory and practice.

Mission-oriented policy and its unrealised potential

While MOIP has already succeeded at shifting the debate on how governments address grand challenges, there is no guarantee that its potential will eventually be translated into results. Conversely, it is likely that — without pre-emptive action — governments will be severely limited by these hurdles, and the transformative ambition of MOIP diluted.

We believe that this scenario can be prevented. However, doing so requires looking at MOIP with new eyes. While MOIP is usually interpreted as a new innovation policy approach, we have been missing out on a great opportunity to make it much more than that: a vehicle to challenge how we think about and implement governance. This begs important questions to the shape and operations of governments:

  • What is the rationale behind the mandate and organisation of a ministry?
  • How do we create room for effective cross-ministerial collaboration?
  • How do we enable a long-term approach to budgeting?
  • How do we connect ambitious political goals with private actors’ agendas?

The promise of MOIP is to help countries generate solutions for challenges of the scale of climate change. Yet, if governments do not first ask themselves the questions above, they will use only a fraction of the potential such an approach can present. In sum, a purposeful innovation policy can be effective only if governed purposefully. As long as MOIP is accommodated within the boundaries of the existing mechanisms that define how governments operate, there is a possibility that its impact will be limited or, in the best-case scenario, only incrementally improve pre-existing policy performance.

Mission-oriented policy and its governance

This limitation is why any government willing to explore missions’ transformative potential must first ask why it needs missions and what it really wants to accomplish through them. Depending on the response, its exploration may range from an incremental adjustment of pre-existing policies to the institutionalisation of new cross-ministerial bodies — if not a reshuffling of mandates across government. In our white paper, we identify three sets of questions that should help steer such inquiry.

1. Designing missions. For mission design to be effective, ensuring the shared ownership of the chosen frames and objectives is key. But how to make sure that missions are legitimate for public, private, and civic actors? Who should have a say in them, and ­how should they be engaged?

2. Organising missions. To implement missions, governments orchestrate the action of public, private, and civic stakeholders. But how should public sector organisations coordinate them in practice? What should a mission life cycle look like? How would a team implementing them be structured?

3. Governing missions. To govern missions, governments must also invest in the capabilities of their civil servants. But what skills are needed exactly to do so? What policy tools should be leveraged? How to ensure that new learnings from their implementation can feed back into execution?

Mission-oriented policy and its purpose

To address these questions, governments must rethink how their branches operate with each other along with external actors: how governance is planned and implemented. Doing so entails intentional commitment from the whole of government: it asks for purpose in translating MOIP thinking from theory to practice. The key question we still have to provide an answer for is not what missions are, but what we want to do with them. It is less about how they look in practice — as if there was only one way — and more how to design, organise, and govern strategies whose aspirations are aligned with the scale of current challenges.

Our contribution is less about advancing the MOIP debate, and more an opportunity for us to have an intentional debate about the means and ends behind our aspirations for societal transformation. Rethinking missions as governance, rather than as policy, highlights the challenges practitioners face when implementing them. We hope that this conceptual innovation empowers scholars, experts, and practitioners to come together, discuss and experiment with new ideas for addressing them. While the journey will be difficult, the stakes could not be higher.

This article is based on a white paper by Demos Helsinki and is also published by UCL IIPP (Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose).Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Iacopo is an Expert in Transformative Governance at Demos Helsinki – a non-profit, independent think tank working on societal transformations. He is pursuing a PhD in Innovation and Public Policy at UCL IIPP (Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose).

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