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Missions for governance: unleashing missions beyond policy

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Katri Sarkia, Racceb Taddesse, Angeliki Vourdaki
Governance Policy Policy analysis

Mission-oriented innovation policy (MOIP) has provided a new approach to addressing relevant societal challenges and enhancing our collective capability to solve them. Yet, when put into practice, MOIP faces similar challenges as other policy innovations. For example, electoral cycles, governmental silos, low capabilities or the need for broad collaboration pose radical challenges to how the potential of MOIP is eventually translated into practice. Shifting public action, which MOIP promises, necessarily questions the core mechanisms that define how governments work.

Countries have not been able to unleash the potential of missions because of three challenges: (i) ambiguity, (ii) incrementalism and (iii) mission-washing. The ambiguity of the concept leaves policymakers without clear paths forward. In the lack of feasible alternatives, incrementalism becomes the standard go-to approach for embedding new policy rationales into old tools. As a result, mission-washing materialises as a critical risk, leading to transformative narratives with modest effectiveness.

This paper identifies three main challenges and relevant recommendations to address them.

  1. Designing missions. For mission design to be effective, the first step is ensuring the broad inclusion of public, private, and civic stakeholders. Through shared ownership and a co-designed identification of frames and objectives, governments thus secure both the legitimacy of missions and the functionality of missions.
  2. Organising missions. Governments are effective in implementing missions when they successfully “orchestrate” the action of stakeholders across public, private, and civil society. To be an effective “orchestrator”, governments have to do two things: first, be open to reallocating mandates and responsibilities; and second, operationalise transformative objectives into challenge-oriented teams and processes. 
  3. Governing missions. To govern missions, governments must invest in developing the relevant capacities of civil servants. First, skills and processes that promote unbounded collaboration across and beyond government will be essential. Second, experimentation capacities will be vital to managing the long-term nature of missions, the high degrees of uncertainty, and frequently changing surroundings.

Purpose is the only silver bullet to make missions a valuable compass for societal transformation. In a few words, the sole adoption of the MOIP label without any relevant change in how governments operate will fail to make transformative change happen. All in all, the question is not what missions are, but what one wants to do with them. It is less about how they look in practice — as if there was only one way of making them — and more about how to devise them in a way conducive to the desired goals.

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