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Exploring new approaches to government: a conversation with Sir Geoff Mulgan and James Plunkett

19 March 2024

News and media


In February/March of this year, leading British policy thinkers Sir Geoff Mulgan and James Plunkett visited Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand as part of a fellowship supported by ANZSOG and the Australian National University’s Crawford School.

The fellowship aimed to explore new approaches to governing and the work of the public sector and identify ways in which these new approaches could be practically influential in current policy and public sector reform programs.

The pair held a series of forums of senior public servants involving the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Victorian Public Sector and the New Zealand Government.

Sir Geoff Mulgan is currently Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College, London.  Between 1997 and 2004 he had roles in the UK government including director of the Government’s Strategy Unit and the Performance and Innovation Unit, and head of policy in the UK Prime Minister’s office. He has worked as an adviser to governments across the world, including being an Adelaide Thinker in Residence in 2007-08, advising South Australian Premier Mike Rann on social innovation and social inclusion policies. He is the author of many books including 2022’s Another World is Possible: how to reignite social and political imagination’

James Plunkett is Chief Practices Officer at NESTA, a UK innovation agency for social good, and has worked for a decade in digital transformation and public policy. Before joining NESTA he led digital technology and policy at Citizens Advice and before that he held roles at 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, and leading policy at the Resolution Foundation think tank. His recent book, End State, explores how we reform the state for a digital age. 

The pair spoke with ANZSOG during their recent visit and explored why governments are failing to address big challenges and what public servants need to do to make governments fit-for-purpose in the 21st century.

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.


Question: I think it’s fair to say you are both in agreement that governments are failing to innovate and make the fundamental changes they need to make for the 21st century. Why are governments failing to do this? Is it primarily the fault of politicians and the political system or is there something that the public service is failing to do?

Geoff Mulgan: Let me try the 60-second answer to that rather big question. If you look globally, there’s a lot of experimenting, innovation and imagination happening around government, some of which accelerated during the pandemic.

For me, some of the most exciting or interesting things are in countries like China, India, Bangladesh, Taiwan, some parts of Europe, particularly Scandinavia, where there is an extraordinary reinvention of government underway. Sometimes that’s happening in deeply authoritarian ways, but sometimes it’s happening in deeply democratic ways, using data and AI and experiments with participation and empowerment.

Since the financial crisis in 2007/08 there’s been a shortening of time horizons in many countries. There’s been, certainly in the UK, serious austerity, which greatly reduced the scope for imagination as well as having damaging impacts on economic growth and even life expectancy. There’s been political instability and a dramatic shift in the political climate, obviously in the US and UK, but actually right across Europe, which has made it harder for public servants to develop ideas and see them through. But I think part of our duty is to at least ensure the options are there.

James Plunkett: On the imagination question, I think there’s something interesting about the craft of policymaking. We’ve refined it, matured it, got better at it. But in getting better at it we’ve repeatedly narrowed the craft. We make little use of disciplines beyond economics – history, sociology, psychology – and even within economics, we make quite narrow use of what is a very rich and broad discipline.

There’s work underway to reintroduce some of those other disciplines. Design is the most interesting one for me, where there’s real head of steam in Britain, and Australia as well, to understand design thinking and design as a discipline in policy making. Policy design is a new discipline that’s emerging as a kind of profession in the UK context. Institutions in Britain like the British Academy, for example, are really pushing on how you bring those other disciplines into public policy making.


Geoff, you’ve written about a lack of social imagination which is affecting more than just government. Why are western societies so pessimistic about the future? Is it connected to a loss of trust in governments?

GM: Well, trust in government is pretty high in many parts of the world. Certainly, the world’s two most populous countries have quite high levels of trust right now, and very innovative governments – whether we like what they’re doing or not.

But there’s no doubt that in the old democracies there’s relatively low trust in government and a pessimism about the future. There’s a loss of confidence in progress and people expect things to be worse for their kids than for them.

I think there are many reasons for that, but one is that the various institutions which I think should be fueling this space aren’t doing enough. The universities have largely given up on their role of articulating 20, 30, 50-year options – whether talking about the care economy or the circular economy or daily life or family.

The political parties at various points in history thought it was part of their job to be pretty bold and imaginative, but they’ve really narrowed down to very retail, very short-term offerings. Media doesn’t provide much space for this. Most of the think tanks feed a kind of media cycle, which makes it much harder for them to develop genuinely novel ideas. In general, they ride waves rather than creating waves.

All of this has squeezed out the space for what I think is needed, which is fairly thoughtful, detailed, coherent descriptions of where we might be heading. It involves creativity, but it also involves thinking about systems, and the numbers and the technologies. It has to be a synthesising kind of work.

The tech world invests very heavily in future imagination, pictures of smart cities, smart homes, AI and robotics. They invest in it, they have think tanks, they have conferences. What’s extraordinary now is the imbalance between the tech world’s very strongly articulated pictures of the future and the almost complete absence of an equivalent in the social and political world. And that’s part of our problem.

JP: I think we struggle to articulate what we might actually want life to be like in 20 or 30 years and the way that plays out in our technology debate. The whole debate about AI, for example, has a strange, sort of submissive character to it. The best we can do is mitigate the downsides of this thing we’ve created, which is very hard. And there’s almost no debate about the kind of society we would like and how AI might contribute to that.

On the trust issue: broadly speaking, people are right to have lost trust in government. In the sense that the kind of metrics people care about have either, in much of the world where you’ve seen these big drops in trust, either flatlined or gone into reverse. Metrics around real income growth, improvements in life expectancy.

Trust is a slightly funny word to use because we end up focusing on how to improve people’s ‘trust’ in government when people are actually onto something and they’re right to have lost faith in these institutions that are substantively failing to deliver the kind of things they want. That’s not to say it’s only about that. But I do think it’s quite important not to just talk about ‘misinformation’ because it’s not only that people are being misled.

GM: I think we do have a structural problem of information, which is very, very important for democracy. But we must also attend to the fact that in many countries, like the UK and US, large minorities have not seen much progress in their living standards for a long time. It’s not surprising they’ve lost confidence.


James, in your book ‘End State’ you talk about the need for an ‘ethics first’ approach to policy, rather than looking at what’s economically rational or what’s kind of pragmatically possible, do you think that kind of work is happening?

JP: The quote that’s always in my mind is the John Maynard Keynes quote that when you’re thinking of the future state of society this ‘has to be tackled in the first instance from the ethical side rather than from the standpoint of technical economic efficiency’ And I think we’ve got into a pickle because we’re very economics first. Economics has almost become the currency of the kind of language within which we talk about policy making.

And I don’t know if this is rose-tinted or naive about the way these debates played out in history, but it’s very striking when you look at the very significant policy reforms, say, of child labour in the Victorian age, they were often moral debates at heart.

I think we don’t argue from a moral standpoint enough. People often very quickly jump to arguing, for example, for investment in childcare because of the economic return. The minimum wage debate very quickly becomes a debate about economics as opposed to the importance of dignity, and the fact that it’s just the right thing to do to pay someone a wage that they can live on.

GM: Even 100 years ago, when Oxford created its first course for governments – Politics, Philosophy and Economics – philosophy was part of it. Then in the latter quarter of the last century, law and economics became absolutely central to places like Harvard Kennedy School.

I think that dominance has been waning for some time but it’s still there, even though these disciplines aren’t adequate for the many issues governments face. Issues which involve science and technology and expressions of demands for equality and voice and so on, which are deeply ethical. The whole climate debate is largely ethical, the whole equalities debate is largely ethical. And in all those debates there’s still a legacy of that law/economics dominance, which is ever more ill-suited to the environment we’re in now.


What do you think will be the main capabilities that public servants will need to bring to the job over the next generation? Which ones will be important that are perhaps not a focus at the moment?

GM: I think part of the task of being a good public servant is widening the options available to your politicians or your society, while being rigorously realistic about the constraints of money or politics or public opinion. Your task for society is opening up possibilities: not just implementing, not just fixing immediate problems. To do that you need a pretty wide range of skills. Yes, you do need a bit of law and economics, but you’ve got to understand science, you’ve got to understand technology, you’ve got to understand psychology, you’ve got to understand what makes policies legitimate, and you have to understand the practicalities of implementation, not just policies that work well on paper.

JP: I think there’s also something about being hungry to learn through doing. It’s too often seen as okay to do things without having anyone in the room with any experience of the practice of the policy area you’re working on. There’s almost a fear of trying something out in practice and this kind of deep-felt sense that you have to do quite a lot of planning to de-risk the doing.

What we need now, and in the future, on complex challenges is almost the opposite understanding. That the safest thing is to quickly try the simplest version of your idea in the field, see what you learn from that, and then iterate from there. It’s quite a big shift culturally.

It’s fantastically risky the way we do things now, fantastically risky. Yet it’s seen not to be, because there’s the false precision that comes from planning, which I always describe as ‘staring harder at the tea leaves’.

GM: New Public Management had this whole theory of separating policy from implementation. Separating the caste of elite people doing the detailed design from the lower status people who would then implement the ideas. I remember a meeting of the heads of the civil service of Australia, UK, New Zealand and Canada over 20 years ago, where one thing they all agreed on: that model is dead, we tried it, it had some virtues but in other respects it led to major failures.

Yet it’s a zombie. It lives on in weird ways, and we still, in the Westminster model, but also other governments, have a continuing separation of policy from implementation, which guarantees periodic failures, especially around technology, partly because not enough frontline experience is used in the design process but also because there are too few pilots or trials to find out what really works in practice.


In Australia, I think there are two areas where government is thinking long term. One is climate change and one is the ageing population. But both are usually framed as ‘we need to avoid disaster’ rather than how this could lead to a positive future. What can individual public servants do to address some of these problems and develop more innovative or positive ways of doing things?

GM: I think it’s really important to shift away from the ‘crisis’ or ‘time bomb’ framing and accentuate the positive. I mean, widespread ageing is the most wonderful thing to have happened in human history.

We live much longer than we did. That’s wonderful. So how do you ensure those last few decades of your life are full of joy and fitness and socialisation and dancing and so on? That side of it is often ignored in policy, which only focuses on the costs of care, let’s say, or rising dementia.

The same on climate. In Europe, there was for many years, and Greta Thunberg was very much part of this, a kind of almost Christian sacrifice martyrdom story: ‘we have to sacrifice ourselves to save the world’. That works for some of the population but really doesn’t for most. So, it’s much better for governments to accentuate a dramatically improved economy with far cleaner technology, healthier food and so on, rather than only emphasising the cost and the sacrifice.

JP: The other point on public servants, the cliche that ‘the future is here already, it’s just unevenly distributed’, I think is true of the way these changes play out. We’ve been talking in the last few days in Australia about new ways of doing government, more human ways of doing government, ways that are capable of dealing with complex problems.

There are examples of all of these methods being used within the public service in Britain, Australia, America, and some of them are decades old now. The new system to some degree grows from within the old one. It comes from change makers, people who are creative and pushing the boundaries. It’s often very hard work. It’s often very tiring because you’re running against the grain of the system that you’re working within, but I do think it’s important to get out of any kind of mindset that these changes only happen top down.

I think one of our challenges is a sort of helplessness that creeps in, but it’s immensely powerful to be the practitioners that are just doing things in new ways. There are abundant examples of people running relational public services, or iterative teams, that are doing things completely differently in ways that inspire others. People in public services have more agency than they sometimes think.