A symphony for policy experimentation: Conductor wanted

By Marieke Goettsch and Eszter Czibor on Thursday, 9 January 2020.

A innovation policy symphony at play

In the first part of our series “A symphony of policy experimentation”, we discussed the rationale for developing cross-sectoral partnerships in the innovation ecosystem, and provided an inspiring account of a real-life collaboration between an NGO and a team of academics. The message was clear: partnerships are mutually beneficial. 

The challenges

Why is it then, that despite the apparent complementarities we discussed between the skills and expertise of the different key players, we don’t see more examples of successful collaborations? While some of the hurdles may be very specific for the sector and area of collaboration, we believe the answer generally boils down to the following systemic challenges: 

  • Lack of knowledge about entry points

Different players in the ecosystem may find it difficult to form initial connections: opportunities to meet and learn about the ways others operate are scarce and not necessarily well publicised. As Geoff Mulgan describes in a Nesta blog, even connecting innovators and users of innovation is not always straightforward. And here the issue is even broader: potential partners may never learn about their options for collaboration. For instance, NGOs often do not realise that top-notch academics may be willing to work with them pro bono in return for the opportunity to access their data for research purposes.

  • Lack of trust

A fear of capture or loss of independence may also discourage collaboration. As Darian Stibbe and others from the TPI Initiative put it, “while the logic may be sound, implementing partnerships between traditional adversaries is challenging and often quite risky for both sides.” Academics worry that their corporate partners may stop them from publishing their results if they do not comply with the firm’s PR objectives, and NGOs are wary of sacrificing their autonomy for the sake of a partnership with a government agency. Sensitivities around data protection and intellectual property rights often send budding partnerships to early graves. 

  • Lack of a common language

Even if the initial connection is formed, many collaborations never take off due to communication difficulties between players from different backgrounds, all with their own jargon. Academics tend to use technical terms with the intention to signal their expertise - only to be perceived by others as arrogant or removed from reality. Agencies’ affinity for obscure acronyms do not make conversations flow easier, either. 

  • Organisational politics and adverse incentives

Collaborations that involve independent “outsiders” provide an unbiased assessment of the processes in place and offer fresh approaches to old problems - and as such threaten to expose the shortcomings of current practices. This prospect might discourage members of the organisation from pursuing partnerships, either for fear of backlash in case the outcome of the evaluation is “negative”, or for an aversion to the effort and uncertainty involved in revising past strategies and established routines.

  • Diverging interests and different timelines

Even if we assume that all key players are motivated by the same ultimate desire to improve our understanding of the world and change peoples’ lives for the better, they still face very different immediate incentives and need to answer to different stakeholders. Academics may be tempted to prioritise theoretical interest over practical relevance, private sector players need to focus foremost on the profit motive, and civil servants operating within short political horizons are often forced to demand quick, rather than robust, results. 

  • Lack of resources

Inevitably, collaborations with external partners will create more work and require additional resources from an organisation. Even if the partnership only involves analysis of historical data, the administrational burden of drafting legal agreements and de-identifying and safely sharing the data often proves to be non-negligible. More complex projects tend to require even more capacity. Unless there is proper ownership of the project within the organisation with specifically dedicated resources and a clear sense of all involved parties that the partnership is worth investing in, the collaboration is unlikely to succeed. A recently published Nesta Partnership Toolkit provides some very practical advice on how to define the partnership and get it to implementation.

The role of government and other intermediaries

So the key question is how can we change this? How can we create an environment where these types of partnerships emerge by design and not merely by coincidence? And how can we create conditions that ensure that these partnerships are actually a win-win for everybody involved?

Unfortunately, there is no magic recipe to make these types of connections work, especially when it comes to making them effective and sustainable, but - to stick to our analogy - there are certainly a range of conductor's batons to orchestrate the different parts of the partnership ensemble.  And governments undoubtedly have an important role to play in picking up that baton and providing incentives and creating spaces for partnerships to emerge, flourish and deliver sustainable impacts for all parties involved.

On the one hand, there are concrete public services providing, among others, financial support, tax incentives, infrastructure or patent-related incentives. On the other hand, there are a set of increasingly prominent policies focussing on open innovation, co-creation, and mission-oriented policies that can create attractive conditions for partnerships to emerge. 

When contemplating the right mix of instruments it is important to recognise that innovation is a complex, non-linear process which is in some part inevitably reflected in the innovation ecosystem. However, too much complexity of the policy support mechanisms for entrepreneurship, innovation and growth poses a serious barrier to multi-sector engagement in collaborative activities, and therefore reducing that complexity alongside the introduction of new instruments and policies is key. How to get that balance right is not always an easy task, which is why at IGL we advocate for an experimental approach which means starting small, testing different options, evaluating them rigorously and scaling those that prove to be the most effective.

And we don’t only advocate for it, but also support governments in this quest as an additional intermediary who can help manage challenges related to partnerships dissolving easily when individual champions change roles, transfer departments or get assigned work that is perceived of greater priority. The partnership example presented in the first part of this blog highlighted the importance of aspects such as networking opportunities and events; the availability of a seed grant, a larger grant, and an experimental culture within MicroMentor. IGL as an intermediary fosters all of the above.

IGL is a global initiative that works to embed a culture of experimentation and learning in innovation and business policy and, as part of this mission, we work with governments to identify and test new policy ideas that in fact often come from academia, NGOs and/or businesses and consortia. Collaboration is therefore at the heart of what we do, which is why we also manage an IGL Research Network and organise an annual conference that includes everything from the discussion of academic research to inspiring keynotes and hands-on workshops, and has proven to be an excellent opportunity to connect senior policymakers, practitioners and academics to discuss the innovation policies of the future. (By the way, mark your calendars: our next conference will take place in June 2020 in London.)

As our colleague Laurie Smith highlighted in a recent blog, intermediaries can provide useful help by “bring(ing) together expertise, knowledge, resources, problems and solutions to enhance innovation” so we would love to take on that intermediary role and hear your ideas about how to build partnerships for policy experimentation.