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Missions at a local level: Learnings from Greater Manchester and beyond

Photo by William McCue on Unsplash

By Daniel Wainwright and Martha McPherson

This blog is part of IIPP’s series on mission-oriented innovation at a local level.

Cities are on the frontline of the climate emergency. They are currently responsible for 70% of global emissions, and this will only rise in future. Globally, the urban population is forecast to increase from 55% to 68% between 2018 and 2050. Without deep changes in the way we eat, move, build and work, city dwellers will suffer — from increasing pollution and heat island effects, to increasingly unstable food chains and greater vulnerability to natural disasters.

So it’s no surprise that many city leaders are putting the climate transition at the centre of their plans for the future. In the UK, 307 local councils have declared a climate emergency. Over the last two years, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), one of the local authorities leading the charge, has been using a mission-oriented approach to reach carbon neutral living in the city-region by 2038, which was developed together with our team at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP).

Powers and roles for local government

In the UK, cities have gained powers through devolution ‘deals’ — a process that started under George Osbourne and David Cameron. Greater Manchester (GM) was the first to develop a deal, and has the greatest range of powers, with wide control of its transport, health, and business support. The range of powers that cities have to shape markets is hugely varied. For example, GMCA does not have the kinds of powers that are available at national level to set carbon taxes, or issue fines for polluters, enforce retrofitting on the grounds of energy efficiency or to increase charges for plastic bags.

What became clear in our research with GMCA is that formal ‘powers’ are not the end of the story. Powers provide a legal framework for action, but they are mediated through the roles (or styles of intervention) that local government plays in the city or region. Harnessed innovatively and creatively, these roles provide local governments with an expansive set of tools for driving missions forward. Working with GMCA, we identified nine key roles that could support their mission — some of which were being much more heavily used than others. These are shown in the diagram below.

Roles played by Greater Manchester Combined Authority

Combining new roles with a market-shaping mindset

Local governments already take on the roles outlined above. However, often they do so from a mindset that prioritises market fixing — ensuring a level playing field and correcting clear market failures, but otherwise seeking to remain ‘neutral.’ But there is no such thing as neutral — a decision to maintain the status quo (in building, transport, road use, supply chains and so on) is a decision to lock in the current ways of working.

To succeed in leading missions, local governments need a market shaping mindset. Within the legal framework of their powers, they can use a broad portfolio combination of their regulatory powers and the various roles they play to tilt social and economic outcomes in the direction of their mission. Examples of this abound, from creative regulation in Barcelona’s Superblocks and Oslo’s parking restrictions, to using procurement as a tool for community wealth building in Preston and for increasing organic food in Copenhagen, to visionary planning and frontline housing delivery in Norwich to build zero-carbon affordable homes.

As well as a change in mindset, working in this way requires civil servants in local government to develop new capabilities, and in some cases unlearn old practices. Our work with GMCA highlighted three areas that we believe city governments should be supporting their staff to develop.

1. Deep understanding of powers and roles

A city’s powers are diffuse, and often difficult to clearly articulate. Expertise in the roles the local government plays sits across a wide group of people, many of whom are not a core part of the mission team. Furthermore, many mission teams involve actors from outside government. They are domain experts — on retrofit, renewable energy, the circular economy, and more. But they are not necessarily government experts.

As a result, mission teams may not always know the full range of powers and roles that might be available to them. City governments embarking on missions should conduct an internal review of the powers they have and the roles they play, giving them a base of shared knowledge to think creatively about how to drive change.

2. Connecting powers and roles to domains of action

GMCA’s mission is structured around Challenge Groups looking at particular domains of climate action. Questions of powers and roles will sit across those groups. As well as the training outlined above, cities should use a powers and roles perspective, with groups exploring innovative ways to progress the mission.

Example of combining a ‘domains’ lens with a ‘powers and roles’ lens

It is important not to consider domains as siloes. Rather, they are platforms for bringing together multiple actors and groups. GMCA has been successful at bringing a diverse group of stakeholders into the mission through domain style convening of ‘Challenge Groups’. Such innovation around mission co-governance and platform approaches has benefits and limitations, as will be discussed in greater detail in a forthcoming paper.

3. Reimagining corporate services

It’s easy to focus on new capabilities for the teams that are responsible for a mission. But to make the most of the full range of powers available to city-regional authorities like GMCA will require a fresh approach to corporate services — Finance, HR, IT, Procurement, and Estates Management all have vital roles to play.

Many of these employees will have professional qualifications and a certain ‘tool kit,’ including specific software, processes, analytical approaches and more. However, that tool kit may be a limiting factor for the mission. Project evaluators, for example, normally use a toolkit grounded in static efficiency and reliant on targets and quantitative data, which are not appropriate for missions or innovation. Cities should invest in training for corporate services staff to enable them to support working in a mission oriented way.

The next frontier

The ambitious commitment to missions at GMCA has shown that cities can use a mission oriented approach to bring diverse groups of stakeholders together focused on a local grand challenge. Whilst they do not have access to the same range of funding and policy tools as national governments, cities have the advantage of being deeply rooted in place and closely connected to their residents.

The legal powers of local governments vary from place to place, but are always limited in some way. But the wide range of roles that they play in their local economies are limited only by their innovative capabilities, and give them a myriad creative ways in which to actively shape markets, rather than just fix them. In order to make the most of those possibilities, local governments need to embrace a market shaping mindset, and invest in the capabilities of their employees to bring life-changing missions into reality.



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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel