by Geoff Mulgan
26th November 2019

In his new book, Social Innovation: How Societies Find the Power to Change – out today – Geoff Mulgan shows how social innovation offers a comprehensive view of what can be done to solve the global social challenges we face.

This extract highlights the importance of public perceptions of government and how they should be working for, to, with and by the people they serve.

In the midst of an election we should be interested not just in what prospective governments might do, but also in how they plan to work. The main parties appear less interested in these questions than for many years when past oppositions immersed themselves in new thinking about everything from privatisation to joined up government, citizen empowerment to digital transformations. Indeed we sometimes appear to have returned to a previous era when everything was about what governments would do to and for a public who were assumed to be passive, and hopefully grateful when new roads or hospitals were built.  In this post, I suggest how they might do better, how they might meet the public’s expectations and avoid cycles of disappointment and distrust.

The answer lies in the importance of prepositions, which sounds odd, but bear with me. The crucial point is that there cannot be a single answer to the question of how to improve citizens’ relationship 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.

In some cases governments act for the public. They try to provide clean air, fire services and 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.

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

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 are 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.

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. They can involve time, like volunteering to support a school or hospital.

Good governments become fluent in all of these approaches and avoid the risk of a category error, but such errors are very common. It’s still, for example, 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.

The British political debate has in some respects stepped back a couple of decades to the time when the competition was all about doing things for the people – more spending, more investment. None of the main parties seem much interested in how they are going to do this, with a government machinery that has atrophied through years of austerity. And they appear even less interested in how they will avoid all the pitfalls of the classic top down approaches.

Yet 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.


See also: Creativity depends on mess and disruption – but where does that leave us?


Social Innovation: How Societies Find Power to Change by Geoff Mulgan is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £11.99.

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