It is really hard to shift government funding to spend more on what works and/or less on what doesn’t. Regular readers of this blog will know this is my belief. A recent research report from the UK reaches many of the same conclusions about this challenge and offers helpful guidance for what we can do about it.
The report, entitled, "The Art of Exit: In Search of Creative Decommissioning"comes from the British National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts, or NESTA, which has taken as its mission to serve as "the UK's innovation foundation." The authors of the NESTA report, Laura Bunt and Charles Leadbeater, propose that "truly transformational public innovation requires creative decommissioning: actively challenging incumbent service models and mindsets to invest properly in new approaches. As public resources are increasingly precious, creative decommissioning will become a critical capability for public services."
Creative decommissioning as the authors describe it is not separate from social innovation but rather an integral part of it. The NESTA report introduces a framework in which each stage of the innovation process is paired with a parallel stage of decommissioning. Their three stages of social innovation are to "engage and understand," "create a vision, mobilize around it," and "formalize and scale." The corresponding three stages of decommissioning are to "show current provision is untenable," "plan to make the break," and "dismantle, switch, and redeploy." Both strands of work need to be pursued in a parallel, intertwined process if either is to be fully realized.
The authors buttress their powerful framework with eight case studies they have identified of truly creative decommissioning in public services, including six from the UK, one from Poland, and one from the U.S. Our "local" example focuses on the transformation of New York’s costly and notoriously ineffective residential approach to juvenile justice to one that relies much more on prevention and community-based supports. Bunt and Leadbeater insist that "creative decommissioning is not primarily a technical and managerial process" and note that their case studies "are stories of teams carefully planning and then driving through transformation, overcoming obstacles and managing risks, by building political and public support, persisting over a long period. They emphasize the importance of strong leadership and tenacity."
"The Art of Exit" also underscores that it is describing a nascent art form; there are precious few instances in which government and social sector leaders have fully integrated the processes of creative decommissioning with social innovation. NESTA is helpfully seeking to start a discussion, not end one, about how this approach can be more widely adopted in the years ahead.
What makes this report especially useful is that it underscores the need for social innovators and government budget balancers to work together. Social innovation, despite the excitement surrounding it in recent years, continues to be a marginal phenomenon in government spending. The millions trickling through new innovation funds are dwarfed by the billions flowing into the well-worn troughs of traditional programs and funding patterns At the same time, those seeking to scale back or stop ineffective government programs are routinely stymied by such programs’ staying power, as many people both inside and out of government have vested interests in the programs continuing, regardless of their lack of impact. Amidst the fiscal austerity that will be with us for the foreseeable future, advocates for change in these two camps will need to join forces in order to make progress. NESTA has equipped us with an illuminating initial roadmap for we might go about this.