Frugal Innovation and State Size

For a century, the most divisive question in political thought has been about the size of the state. Should it expand and take an active role in all sorts of areas of life? Or is that just meddlesome and wasteful? Those questions might have made sense in the previous century. Now, with revolutions in technology and organisational structure, and a world transformed by Covid-19, a revolution is also coming in the essential business of government – whether we like it or not.”

Jaideep Prabhu spoke earlier today on an Apolitical webinar about innovation, imagining the future of government, and the new levers of state power. The webinar began with two polls. My sense is that the majority of participants were from the public sector based on the chat respondents.

The webinar covered insight from Prabhu’s new book.

Prabhu introduced the concept of frugal innovation: small teams can do what only large companies or big governments could do before. The result? Faster, better, cheaper. It’s the political environment, and dogma, that creates the impression that there can be no balance in the role of the State. He points out Libertarians believe that “governments are inefficient and ineffective” while Statists believe that governments are the “only force that can redress the vagaries and injustices of nature or the market.”

Prabhu sees that there can be balance through leveraging innovation concepts from the private sector that have been adopted successfully in government. This approach is:

  • Responsive: citizen-centric, outside-in
  • Inclusive: balance needs among groups
  • Experimental: agile pilots to mitigate risks & costs
  • Entrepreneurial: 21st century industrial strategy
  • Innovative: culture of innovation

Risk was an important theme during the webinar. Public service is mostly a risk-averse culture. The notion of spending public money, even modest amounts, on experiments is anathema. Prabhu addressed these concerns by explaining the modern view of risk management by avoiding very large investments that have not been proven in pilot projects. Failing fast and project pivots have become widely adopted among government innovation and digital services groups.

Agile country development techniques, like Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), have emerged and become widely adopted. Governments are leveraging approaches like design thinking and human-centric design to become more citizen-centric.


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