Missions-driven Government for 21st Century Public Service


By Prof. Mariana Mazzucato and Cllr Georgia Gould

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Policy and Cllr Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council, have launched the Mission Critical programme, supported by the Future Governance Forum.

Progressive governments across the world are fighting to respond to the grand challenges of our time — climate breakdown, inequality, pandemics, and the cost of living crisis. At the same time, many find themselves inheriting a degraded public sector after a decade or more of austerity. The promise during the COVID-19 pandemic to ‘Build Back Better’ has largely gone unfulfilled.

The scale of these challenges requires states to embrace their role in directing growth and shaping markets that work for people and the planet. In recent years, the theory of mission-oriented government has inspired progressive administrations around the world — from Barbados to the European Union — to challenge economic and public sector orthodoxies about where value is created and to commit to ambitious strategies aimed at building inclusive, sustainable and resilient economies. Missions provide a governing philosophy for complex times, creating new coalitions, overcoming silos and providing the long-term vision we need. Missions are most powerful and effective when they are bold and capable of engaging and inspiring the public, but also set a clear and specific target, provide the right mix of ambition and realism as well as the ability to galvanise cross-sectoral and inter-ministerial collaboration, and inspire multiple, bottom up solutions.

This “mission-oriented” approach turns social and environmental challenges into pathways for new forms of collaboration, and new market opportunities. By working with willing businesses to solve health, climate, food insecurity and other challenges, governments can spark innovation, crowd in private sector investment and generate spillovers. This logic stands in contrast to the orthodox view that economic policy must be restricted to fixing market failures and pursued in isolation from social and environmental policies — and that prioritising the latter comes at the expense of the former. How the government partners with businesses is equally important. Public-private collaboration can be structured with strong conditionalities aimed at maximising public value and at sharing the rewards of innovation as well as the risks.

The London Borough of Camden and the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) have been at the forefront of implementing a mission-oriented approach to public policy in the UK. With advice from the Renewal Commission, Camden has charted a path from defining ambitious missions to implementing them. This four-year journey has seen Camden take part in a global dialogue with other towns, cities and countries taking this approach. Camden’s missions, which were established in early 2022 following deep community engagement, are to ensure that: by 2030, those holding positions of power in Camden are as diverse as our community — and the next generation is ready to follow; by 2025, every young person has access to economic opportunity that enables them to be safe and secure; by 2030, everyone eats well every day with nutritious, affordable, sustainable food; and by 2030, Camden’s estates and their neighbourhoods are healthy, sustainable and unlock creativity.

In Camden, this approach has led to new cross-departmental collaboration within the council, galvanised new partnerships with the private, public, and voluntary sectors and inspired social action in communities. Mission partners range from global businesses located in Camden to a local community food co-operative. The power of this approach comes from multiple actors pursuing the same goal. Given time and investment this creates new momentum for change that goes beyond what government could have imagined alone. With UCL IIPP, Camden is establishing a new Camden Community Wealth Fund to provide patient investment to local start-ups and social enterprises, and is redesigning public procurement as a strategic tool for shaping markets and generating value for communities. Camden’s experience underlines that a transformational economic agenda must be accompanied by a transformational public administration agenda.

Missions are an approach to governing — requiring thoughtfulness about how to lead, collaborate, take risks, prioritise and innovate. Implementing this approach requires investment in the transformational capacity of Government as well as the development of dynamic public sector capabilities and new institutions. We see Missions as providing an incentive and a framework for a shift in political and governance systems — towards a whole-of-government approach to solving challenges, symbiotic public-private collaboration in which the state confidently seeks to maximise public value, and directed and well governed innovation that generates solutions that serve the common good.

At a national level, the approach to reform has been continual but piecemeal — from the Government Digital Service (recently diluted from its bold early promise) to the introduction of regional devolution settlements (which have led to a patchwork of institutions and powers that show potential but lack overall coherence).

Missions move us away from a false choice between the centralised and place-based leadership and make possible new forms of partnership between different tiers of government. The current model is arguably overly centralised, yet we also lack a long-term industrial strategy or investment plan. Through a missions framework, the centre can set a bold long-term vision with clear outcomes that enable place based delivery and innovation. New mission-based partnerships will enable a continual feedback loop between the centre, sub-regional and local government.

In this context, the Labour Party’s decision to put five missions at the heart of its manifesto is encouraging. Given the multiple crises that Labour will inherit if they win the next election, it will be important to move away from a traditional Westminster and Whitehall model of government that focuses on narrow targets within departmental silos.

At its core, a mission-oriented approach is about turning big challenges into concrete goals that catalyse engagement, innovation and investment from across ministries and across sectors. Missions can play a critical coordinating function — ensuring that the government is able to deliver on an ambitious agenda, rather than dissipating its energy across fragmented strategies and “sticking plaster” politics.

We can see ways in which these Missions can evolve with Labour in Government to reflect the need for both institutional reform and wider change in our communities — for example moving from addressing crisis in the NHS to addressing population health and ensuring that everyone can live healthy lives. Importantly, building a public sector ready to meet the challenges of this century will mean investing in a renewal of governing capabilities and redesigning key tools, like procurement, and institutions, like public banks, as vehicles for actively shaping markets and advancing policy goals. Labour’s proposed development of a national procurement strategy and national wealth fund are positive examples of the kind of change needed to deliver mission-based government. These reforms accompanied by a radical shift in mindset on why and how governments invest as well as the returns they expect have the potential to fast track mission delivery.

Our research

We’re working together with the Future Governance Forum to explore the changes in governance, policy tools, public institutions, and public sector capabilities that are needed to implement a missions-oriented approach in practice. Our research draws on our own experience as well as a broad range of insights drawn from governments around the world, academia, and civil society. We will publish our findings in Spring 2024.

We are considering questions such as:

  1. What are the roles of the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretaries of State, and Ministers in leading mission delivery, and what structures in Whitehall would enable them to fulfil those roles?
  2. How might missions be operationalised across Government departments and how do we incentivise and enable collaboration? How do we avoid ‘mission washing’?
  3. How might the rhythms and processes of Government such as Budgets, Spending Reviews, and business planning cycles support Mission delivery?
  4. How might missions engage with localities and regions and deliver relevant outcomes in every part of the UK?
  5. How do we agree on shared measurement and insight approaches that allow for accountability, mindful of the long-term time horizon of the missions?
  6. What capabilities and skills are needed in Government for civil servants and the public sector workforce more broadly to work in a mission-oriented way, and how might those capabilities be built?

Fundamentally, these questions are about the purpose of our bureaucracies, their role in actively shaping markets, and the capabilities they need to do so. Rallying together the institutions of Whitehall and devolved, local, and regional governments across the UK and directing them towards ambitious missions is no small task, but it is vital to set the UK on a path towards a growing, inclusive and sustainable economy.



UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how the state is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato