Published on 8 November 2023
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Social R&D: the next phase of public service reform?

With crises apparent across a range of public services, there is a growing focus on the case for reform. In this post Halima Khan introduces the main arguments of her new policy brief which recommends an approach that combines innovation methods with a clearer sense of social purpose.

The public service reform agenda was most visible over the last 20 years during the administrations of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and the Coalition Government. At that time the agenda was shaped by the concepts of ‘choice’, ‘competition’ and ‘efficiency’, with the Coalition government adding ‘open policy making’ and deficit reduction through austerity. From 2010 onwards, some high profile reforms included continued school reform, the removal of some national target regimes, and devolution in England. Then, between 2016 and 2021, government attention was dominated by leaving the European Union followed by the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath. The result is that public service reform has been less explicit or clear as an agenda over the past decade.

But interest in public service reform is growing once more — driven principally by poor performance in public services. In England, general practice, hospitals, adult social care, neighbourhood services, police, criminal courts and prisons are all performing worse now than in 2010.[1] The physical infrastructure of public services is fraying in terms of both bricks and mortar and digital systems, and the public sector workforce has been in widespread industrial action. Importantly, some long-term outcomes (such as the time people spend in ill health) are heading in the wrong direction.

Across key dimensions – outcomes, infrastructure and workforce – public services are in a poor state of affairs. The current trajectory on public services is looking increasingly untenable, while the fiscal outlook is increasingly difficult. But even if more funding were to be secured, adding more money into sub-optimal, ineffective and sometimes broken models of public services will not achieve the necessary gains.

But what kind of reform is most needed?

The most dominant version of public service reform over recent decades has been New Public Management (NPM) — an approach to public administration which brought management ideas based on competition, markets and incentives from the private sector into public services. But its track record is mixed and there is increasing recognition of its limitations.

In this context, there are arguments to consider a new way to approach reform that includes two key characteristics:

  1. Social: reform that addresses social goals including relationships that build people’s sense of dignity, hope, purpose and agency. 
  2. R&D: reform that applies innovation methods to public services so that new and better approaches to public services are systematically developed and spread.

Combining these two characteristics would shift public service reform towards the idea of innovation through people, enabled by relationships, knowledge and technology.

It would also address two current weaknesses in the current approach — social policy that isn’t social, and public services that lack R&D. The result is that social considerations – such as people feeling accepted and understood, with positive relationships that support them – are not factored into public service provision. This can mean that well-intentioned services ‘bounce off’ as people are disengaged and disheartened. And, second, the lack of R&D means that innovators – in government, civil society and elsewhere – who are seeking to improve how public services are designed and delivered lack support, infrastructure and investment. This keeps public services stuck in repetitive and ineffective cycles of ‘reform’.

A “social R&D” approach to public service reform could help to shift public services out of these ruts. Some of the assumptions that could underpin a social R&D approach include:

  1. Policy as social change rather than just technical process. Factoring in the role of issues such as networks, culture, movements, identity, narratives, framing and belonging.
  2. Policymaking as a system rather than a production line. Understanding policy as complex, highly interconnected and dynamic.
  3. People as citizens with potential rather than ‘service users with problems’. Working with people to build capabilities and a foundation of dignity, hope, purpose and agency.
  4. Plurality of knowledge rather than a single top-down world view. Including the day-to-day experiences of citizens and frontline staff.
  5. Context matters rather than assuming it can be excluded. Understanding the role that context plays including factors like the quality of leadership.

To bridge these assumptions to day-to-day policymaking, they can be translated into three potential priorities for public service reform:

  • Involving citizens and frontline staff through deliberative and participatory approaches.
  • Learning throughout the policymaking process using evidence, feedback loops and experimentation.
  • Developing people to fulfil their potential, drawing on human development, including a foundation of dignity, hope, purpose and agency.

This agenda reflects a wider movement seeking alternatives to the current public service paradigm. There are theories and practice on the ground, yet policy is lagging. The energy, dynamism and ambition of this movement are not always visible to or recognised by national policymakers, particularly at the level of the UK and England.

For this agenda to develop further, policymaking will need to grapple with challenges of evidence, high quality implementation and investment. The agenda also raises issues about what can be scaled and how, building capabilities, accountability and risk, equity and fairness and the balance between interventions at the individual level with those at the macro or structural level.

Some components of a possible future agenda could include:  

  • People, people, people: understanding human capital as a major source of policy success or failure.
  • Embedding R&D: a more ambitious use of innovation and improvement methods and a R&D system that can systematically develop and spread better approaches.
  • Human development: as a frame for policy including recognising the importance of social goals such as dignity, hope, purpose and agency.
  • Localism and devolution: applying social R&D principles at a regional and local scale, where feedback loops between policy and implementation can be particularly effective.
  • Social infrastructure: as a long-term investment alongside physical infrastructure.
  • Social knowledge: to bring a wider set of insights to policy, including from social sciences, humanities and the arts.
  • Public sector productivity: to deepen understanding of what contributes to productivity including factors such as effective learning and workforce motivation.

The policy brief, “Social R&D: the next phase of social policy reform”, reflects on ways to put the ‘social’ back into social policy and ensure that new and better versions of public services can be developed and spread.

[1] Institute for Government. (2022). Performance Tracker 2022.

Policy brief: Social R&D: the next phase of public service reform?

News release: Revitalizing public services: a call for social R&D in public service reform

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Halima Khan

Affiliated Researcher

Halima Khan has worked in national, regional and local government and at Nesta, the UK’s innovation agency for social good. Her interests are in approaches to public service innovation which...

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