Planning a post-covid wellbeing economy – what can we learn about policy innovation from Operation Moonshot?

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“It aims to radically rethink how governments and policymakers currently perceive their capacity to act in a global economy. ”

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In early September 2020 the UK government’s plan for reopening the economy in the new COVID-19 world was leaked. This plan outlined a goal to eventually rollout 10 million tests per day, allowing people ‘to return to and maintain normal life’. Known as Operation Moonshot, it is hoped that ‘Mission Teams’ will operate in a Manhattan Project-type approach to delivering the level of innovation/pace required to make this possible.

This concept of moonshot or mission-based innovation policy is taken from the work of Marianna Mazzucato and her colleagues at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP), who have been working towards encouraging governments across the globe to take a mission-based approach to innovation. Two key examples include the European Commission’s announcement that Mazzucato’s ‘missions’ will be at the core of ambitious new €100bn EU proposal known as ‘Horizon Europe’ and the work Mazzucato undertook on developing the Mission-Oriented UK Industrial Strategy Report.

Mazzucato’s work appears to have had a significant impact on the UK government. In March 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to have sought advice on how moonshots could drive policy in the UK.

What is mission-based innovation policy?

The concept of a moonshot is drawn from the original program that sought to put a man on the moon. This mission required a bold vision from across many and varied sectors of industry to come together and work towards a specific problem. It was risky, but the process of this type of innovation would drive dynamic change throughout the process. 

According to Mazzucato, these mission-oriented policies should be:

  • Bold, inspirational and with wide societal relevance.
  • Entail a clear direction which is targeted, measureable and time bound.
  • Ambitious but realistic
  • Cross-disciplinary, cross-sectoral and cross actor
  • Composed on multiple, bottom-up solutions. 

This approach is uniquely ambitious and visionary in scope and future-oriented. It aims to radically rethink how governments and policymakers currently perceive their capacity to act in a global economy. It demands that policymakers creatively imagine how government policy can be collectively organised to address intractable global problems such as climate change, food insecurity or public health inequalities. Rather than acting merely to correct ‘market failures’, the approach holds that governments themselves can direct resources towards the innovative resolution of these crises. This allows them to both protect industry from risk, but, ideally, also benefit from the rewards.  There are clear lessons to be learnt about the principles for a wellbeing based economy here, but also a number of issues which policy innovators may need to exercise caution.

Is Operation Moonshot actually a moonshot?

Taking from the criteria above there are several areas of concern. It is definitely bold and has a wide societal relevance. There are few who would deny that avoiding future lockdowns is a worthwhile goal.

The direction is, to some extent measureable and time-bound. The goals and goal posts are clear. However, as Mazzucato notes, this timeframe should “be long enough to allow the process to grow, for actors to build relationships and interact”. Whether this is the case is arguable.

It is certainly ambitious, but is it realistic? Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association, and researchers across the UK have expressed their concerns. Claims have also been made that the National Screening Committee, the group responsible for health screening in the UK, had not been consulted.

The idea behind these challenges is certainly that they deliver what “would otherwise not be attempted” but that “the objective should be framed to be on the one hand high-risk but also realistically feasible, at least in theory, within the given time period.” It is not yet clear if this is likely to be the case.

Operation Moonshot certainly has the potential to spark entrepreneurial activity across disciplines, but given what has been revealed to date, it seems the cross-sectoral components will be less of a focus. Private sector consultancy Deloitte has been responsible for drafting most of the plan and are presented as leading on various “missions”. Thus far, much of the UK’s testing approach has been outsourced as well. This is not to say that government should be wholly responsible for the delivery, but if the plan achieves its goal, what return will the government see for its investment in the risk?

Little is yet known about whether the focus on Operation Moonshot will be on multiple development paths, or wholly focused on one strategy. If it is to be a true moonshot, as intended by Mazzucato, it is critical that new, innovative ways of addressing the core question be open to consideration.

Is the UK Government able to deliver?

Aside from the questions of whether the leaked approach is in fact a moonshot in practice as well as in name, this approach also imposes fundamentally novel demands on government actors.

For the most part this type of mission-led work has focused on the necessary mechanisms and institutions for global governance, developing universal standardized metrics and guidelines and future-oriented policy goals on sustainable development, carbon neutral and wellbeing. Unfortunately, these can seem complex and abstract for those responsible for designing and implementing these solutions.

To date little is known about the internal barriers and enablers that exist within government to deliver this type of transformative change and policy innovation. The evidence that does exist is not terribly optimistic. As research shows, the civil service and government can be slow to adapt to new ideas – instead translating them to fit the current context.

Fundamentally, government intervention is only effective if the state has the corresponding capabilities to act. As Mazzucato and Kattel note in their recent paper on COVID-19 and public sector capacity, governments need to be investing in their own internal capacity and capability to  deliver “public– private collaborations that genuinely serve the public interest”. They recognised that a mission-based approach needs to be driven by “strong public capacity aimed at solving problems” as well as “new policy frameworks, capacities, and capabilities, focusing on market-shaping leadership, skills, tools, and methods”.

Currently, this internal capacity is absent, driven in part by risk averse practice, austerity measures, management principles and a growing reliance on outsourcing expertise. Almost a decade ago, David Cameron spoke about ‘liberating the hidden army of public service entrepreneurs’, perhaps now is the time to do just that. If government can embrace the risks they may, in turn, reap the rewards.

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