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Beyond mission washing: Advocating for challenge-driven policies

By Platform
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European regions are increasingly adopting regional mission approaches to address pressing societal challenges. However, the intricacies of these policies may lead to the risk of ‘mission washing’. To progress towards more ambitious approaches to policy making, regions must prioritise challenge-driven policies targeting concrete, place-based societal challenges to build necessary governance and institutional capacities.

A fashionable policy concept

Since Mariana Mazzucato’s report on mission-oriented research and innovation, missions have gained traction in EU policies. The EU is embarking on five missions guiding Horizon Europe. The Partnership of Regional Innovation (PRI)  proposes the introduction of local missions to coordinate actions under a coherent directional logic, enabling the exploration of broad-ranging policy mixes for system-level innovation. At national level, countries are taking concrete steps, such as the Netherlands launching Dutch missions for grand challenges.


Definition of missions

Missions are measurable, ambitious, and time-bound targets addressing complex issues like climate change through purpose-driven, market-shaping approaches. The public sector actively convenes and coordinates actors around complex, cross-sectoral issues that individual actors cannot resolve independently. Achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 exemplifies a mission-oriented innovation approach to formulating climate goals (The OECD Mission Action Lab).

Risks of ‘mission washing’

Despite their popularity, many regional initiatives are superficially labelled as missions. This ‘mission washing’ trend involves adopting mission terminology without altering underlying policies, resulting in retrofitted initiatives within unchanged frameworks, ultimately diluting the essence of missions.

Navigating complexity

Concerning regional missions, stakeholders face significant challenges due to the institutional complexity of a policy concept that implies the presence of a number of sine qua non ingredients: directionality, through selecting specific societal challenges; legitimacy, with a shared agenda to address such challenges; a holistic policy coordination across policy silos, and integrated implementation and policy-mix (OECD). Missions demand not only a capacity to learn and reflect from policy experiments but also a high-level political commitment.

Challenges with broad missions

European regions pursuing broad regional missions, such as ‘achieving carbon neutrality by 2045,’ ‘promoting clean mobility,’ or ‘preserving clean oceans,’ raise concerns about regional capacities to tackle them effectively. Such missions might be too broad, globally complex, and distant in time to activate regional engagement among quadruple helix stakeholders.

Advocating for challenge-driven policies

Most European regions, particularly transition and less-developed regions, must strengthen governance and institutional capacities before embarking on ambitious missions, as advocated in our policy brief on Regional Missions. Experimenting with mini missions allows policymakers to foster enhanced leadership and agile governance, as evidenced in Sofia, Bulgaria, solving urban challenges, such as traffic congestion and urban pollution, through challenge-driven prizes.

Mini missions use local knowledge to address local challenges within a short timeframe. Regions face unique challenges—ranging from issues such as brain drain and aging populations to concerns about biodiversity loss and various climate-related adversities like wildfires, droughts, and floods. They require specific and localised solutions.

Drawing upon local knowledge to validate approaches and make informed decisions ensures good governance by maintaining legitimacy, balancing diverse interests and needs, and securing local support. Mini missions are highly recommended to start a paradigm shift in policy making.

Your gateway to better regional challenge-driven policies

The Policy Learning Platform offers a gateway to design your challenge-driven policy framework. Access the latest knowledge in designing such policies:

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About the author

By Arnault Morrison, Thematic Expert for a Smarter Europe.

Arnault has a PhD in Economic Geography from Utrecht University and the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria. He is expert in regional innovation governance and innovation policies. He is responsible for validating good practices and contributes to the production of articles and policy briefs for the knowledge hub. He also answers requests for policy advice via the expert support helpdesk.

Arnault Morisson
Regional policy