How can the British government extract the estimated £104 billion worth of knowledge assets that are currently held up in central public institutions to unlock innovation and help support the UK's aim of becoming a ‘science powerhouse'?
That's the conundrum that The Mackintosh Report, published this week by the Treasury, aims to answer - setting out an implementation strategy to support organizations and individuals in overcoming barriers to effectively manage intangible assets such as intellectual property, research and development, and data.
It's not the first time that the British government has sought to tackle this and has come up time and again over the years. However, there is renewed support from the very top of the political food chain this time around and is being propelled by the success of UK science during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The implementation strategy outlines a three pronged approach to capitalizing on the trapped knowledge assets held by central government - good practice, incentives and support. Commenting on its release, the report's author, Dr Andrew Mackintosh, states:
Modern economies across the globe are increasingly built on knowledge rather than physical assets. They trade in innovation, in cutting edge ideas and capabilities, and in data and insight. These are the intangible or ‘knowledge assets' (KAs) that underpin the most successful modern businesses and are vital to the long-term success of the UK.
The increased focus on KAs requires both a change in approach in response to new incentives, and the patience to support new businesses and services while they incubate and grow. This takes time and long-term commitment, as well as a willingness to take risks in order to pursue opportunities. However, the benefits to the wider economy and to the organisations themselves are considerable.
The vision that continues to drive this work is clear: a future where government organisations recognise that the knowledge, skills and capabilities they develop while fulfilling their public purpose often have broader applicability across and outside of government, and that the efficient use of public funds includes exploiting these for wider benefit. In doing so, organisations have the opportunity to become more innovative, more used to engaging with ideas from outside and more collaborative in their approach to addressing their core activities.
The vision for the report is one where public sector organizations use the knowledge, skills and capabilities they develop while fulfilling their public purpose to have broader impact, driving productivity and growth. Some high potential growth areas that the strategy points to include digital health, where the data held by the NHS holds huge potential, and Agri-tech, which currently contributes £14.3 billion to the UK economy and employees 500,000 people.
Pillar 1 - good practice
The first pillar of the strategy is focused on good practice, as it is not always clear to organizations what ‘good' looks like when talking about management of knowledge assets. New draft guidance to support a range of officials has been published for public sector organizations explaining how to identify, protect and exploit their assets.
This pillar also places an expectation on organizations to have a knowledge asset management strategy in place. In addition to this a new ‘knowledge and innovation assets bank' should be created to capture and share intelligence on high potential opportunities across government, allowing knowledge asset holders and innovators to connect and pursue opportunities.
Pillar 2 - incentives
There will be changes and clarifications to cross cutting guidance and rules on public spending and governance to ensure greater focus on identifying and developing knowledge asset opportunities. The Treasury will update budgeting guidance to make it easier for departments to keep the proceeds from successful innovations and there will be better recognition and reward for innovators, as well as better training, across the civil service.
Managing knowledge assets will also be embedded into the business planning process and wider functional agenda, starting by reviewing government's performance and planning framework and functional standards to achieve this.
Senior Responsible Owners for knowledge assets will also be created within each organization to improve accountability and leadership, alongside new reporting frameworks for knowledge assets in government.
Pillar 3 - support
A new unit will also be created - The Government Office for Technology Transfer - which will sit within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Its aim will be to scout for new opportunities and support government departments and organizations on how to identify, protect and exploit their knowledge assets. It will also be responsible for taking forward this strategy.
In addition, new funding will be made available to invest in innovative ideas, with the aim of benefiting both the public sectors and the wider economy. Finally, better networks will be created, which includes improving connections between public sector innovators, business, investors and academia; and "levelling up support for regional public sector research institutions and ecosystems outside of London, Oxford and Cambridge".
We've been here before and this particular strategy has been three years in the making - which doesn't bode particularly well if we are thinking about innovating at speed. That being said, as I noted above, this now does have support from the very top - with the Prime Minister making public statements about fostering science, data and innovation as drivers for UK growth, now that the UK is operating outside of the European Union. That could well work in its favour.