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  • Geoff Mulgan

Intensifying needs and shrinking resources: options for evidence, innovation and action

2024 could bring worsening hardship and destitution for many across the UK – the product of many factors including higher prices, rising personal debt, and economic slowdown.   Yet there will be less money available to meet needs – either in local authorities, national government or philanthropy.

We can expect that hardship will worsen and that there will be more need for emergency help of all kinds.  However, in local areas there is a lack not just of cash but also of fairly basic infrastructure to respond:

·       Little shared data or tracking of where need is most pressing (eg linking CAB, charities, local government, DWP)

·       Few good systems for managing cross-sector coordination, for example around food provision or housing

·       Few shared methods for making decisions about prioritisation (of the kind that are common in physical regeneration)

·       Little systematic synthesis of what’s known, and relevant actions and innovations from the UK and globally

·       And few clear ideas about what the best role should be for national institutions – DWP and others – and how they should link into local action

Several national and local governments have indicated interest in developing better methods for addressing this challenge.     Here I suggest a few possible pointers.

1.Be realistic about the broader context

The starting point has to be some realism about the medium-term prospects for public spending.  For anyone uncertain about the likely global context, I would recommend Marc Robinson’s book ‘Big Government: the future of government expenditure in advanced economies’.   As he makes clear the next few decades are likely to see a significant growth in the share of GDP devoted to governments (7% on average). But this will mainly be the result of pressures on costs.   He warns us to be very sceptical of both right-wing fantasies that efficiencies, whether driven by AI or other means, will have much impact, or of left-wing snake oil hopes that increased debt can avoid the need for tax rises.   

In the UK the fiscal constraints are well known, and well documented by the IFS, Resolution Foundation and others.  For local government we must hope for a more healthy relationship with national government.  But there is no prospect of a big shift, or a surge of spending of the kind that happened in the early 2000s.

2. Learn from around the world

The UK is of course not alone in struggling with shortage.   But the countries we usually learn from are relatively prosperous ones that may not be such useful models in times of constraint.  Specifically, we need to learn more systematically from at least the following sources:

·       Some of the most useful lessons about how to meet emergency needs – hunger, hardship, housing – now come from the world of development that has sophisticated tools for quickly tracking flows of food, housing or money and linking supply to demand (with famous pioneers such as Ushahidi).  Few if any of these tools are used in the rich west, including in the UK.

·       There is now ample global experience on how to mobilise underused assets away from crises – buildings, vehicles, food – using digital platforms and other devices. These might also include accelerating use of spare rooms, empty shops etc.

·       Other countries have done well in engaging business to help with hardship.  France is a particularly good case which has seen various programmes to get business to offer essentials at lower cost, as well as other policy initiatives such as those to cut food waste and ensure use of food not sold in restaurants and supermarkets.

·       Frugal innovation has been pioneered in India as a mindset and with methods very different from fields like computer science and pharmaceuticals (these methods have been documented by many organisations, including Nesta).  Lessons can be learned both from civil society initiatives like Honeybee and governmental ones.

·       There are many examples of mobilising people in new ways – for mutual support, transport, care, cooking and more, for example drawing on timebank models.    IPPO did a study last year on volunteering in the pandemic, and there was some evidence that levels of social capital played an important role in helping areas to cope.

·       Some interesting tech innovations can be drawn on, eg the idea, developed by Joshua Blumenstock and now tested in many countries, using patterns of mobile phone useage (with over 900 indicators on useage, contract choices etc) to map levels of hardship in real time.


These are just a few of the examples where more systematic mapping, tracking and assessment of what’s been done and what’s worked could be very useful in the UK.


3. Mobilise brainpower

This is a topic that demands accelerated learning - through evidence synthesis and peer learning.  Three obvious options would focus on evidence, imagination and peer learning:

·       An evidence strand would look at successful examples from recent years, particularly perhaps from the years of austerity. Which places bucked trends, maintaining public services and outcomes with constrained resources?  What lessons are there about methods and approaches?

·       A second innovation strand would challenge innovators, community practitioners, as well academics, to propose specific actions that have a good chance of being high impact and relatively cheap that would reduce hardship or destitution.  This could be thought of as a challenge process.   Ideally, a large number of ideas would be generated and then assessed for practicality, impact etc.   Places could act as trailblazers and testbeds for the best options.

·       A third strand would accelerate peer learning with a groups of local authorities and areas – this has at times been common practice for the LGA, Solace and others, but lack of resources has made it much less common.

4. Use innovation methods to generate options

Innovation methods can be used to multiply options.  The 12 economies method set out below can work well with frontline staff and charities for example, though there may be other methods to use.   Essentially, it’s a tool to generate options that can potentially save money without destroying public value. Participants can be helped to become familiar with the approach by taking a live example – such as rural bus services, libraries or nursery education – and showing the options under each heading.  Then some shared grounding in current data (eg costs, unit costs etc) helps to sharpen the discussion, and lead to more specific proposals.   For the next period, topics might include food (eg how to cut foodbank useage in the area by 50%) or street homelessness.  Alternatively, we could be method agnostic and challenge groups to develop options in intensive workshops and then pitch them to policy-makers.

The aim of this framework is to encourage options beyond the first three, which are the standard approach to cuts.  They are prompts for thinking more creatively. The twelve are as follows:

Traditional tools

i)Pure economies – stopping doing things (eg fewer bin collections, closing rail lines and bus services)

ii)Economies of trimming – freezes, efficiency savings (eg 5% cuts to pay or opening times, shorter school days)

iii)Economies of delay – to capital, pay rises, procurement, maintenance, improvements

Economic and systems restructuring

iv). Economies of scale – eg aggregating call centres, back office functions (these have often been exaggerated in the past - but can sometimes deliver big savings)

v). Economies of scope – eg combining multiple functions in one stop shops, multi-purpose personal advisers, neighbourhood media, extending roles, standardised identification, payments systems etc

iv). Economies of flow – eg hospitals specialising in a few operations, cutting bottlenecks or easing transitions in ways that reduce frictions

vii).Economics of prevention and circuits – reducing failure demand (recidivism, hospital repeated re-admissions) through tools like outcome-based funding, energy efficiency and health prevention measures

viii). Economies of penetration – eg Combined Heat and Power, street concierges that make the most of place

New social contracts

ix). Economies of responsibility and commitment – passing responsibility out to citizens, eg for self-testing, separating out waste, and shifting provision from low to high commitment people and organisations (tapping into eg volunteer labour, motivation…)

x). Economies of visibility – mobilising public eyes and the power of shame  (eg public contracts, spending patterns)

Smart tools

xi). Economies from data sharing – open data enabling innovation, competition and new models (finance, energy, transport)

xii). Economies of doubling up – actions that address two problems/needs simultaneously (eg retrofit programmes for young unemployed)


Usually groups of frontline staff, managers or policy makers can quickly generate new options using these as prompts. Many of the options will not be viable, but some may point the way to achieving better results with very limited resources.

5.  Avoid boomerangs!

Finally, a crucial issue for any area or public service is to avoid what can be called boomerangs. These are cuts to spending that create higher costs later on.  There are many examples:  cuts to training, public health, rehabilitation, early years and more, that create problems later.  But there isn’t enough rigorous analysis of the dynamics, and almost every service can claim, in its own interest, that any cuts now will create more costs in the future. So more clarity is vital to guide the allocation of scarce resources.

6.  In summary …

More effective action to reduce hardship with few resources will require work on many fronts, including practical local projects, development of common tools, synthesis of practical knowledge, accelerated learning and more.   What’s needed are long menus of practical options that could be implemented by a city or a national government.  The purpose would be to minimise human suffering during a period of constraint.


This note was written last spring in parallel with a piece commissioned by Singapore’s government journal Ethos in January 2023: I later ran a workshop on it with the leadership team in one of the UK governments and in parallel shared it with colleagues in IPPO (the International Public Policy Observatory that I've contributed to over the last two years). As far as I'm aware the inds of evidence synthesis suggested here are not being done anywhere but significant work is underway from Joseph Rowntree Foundation and other philanthropic foundations, and I hope that work of this kind might accelerate during 2024.


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