How can social action support service transformation?


This report details findings from Nesta and the Cabinet Office’s support of 52 social action innovations. It shows that social action can transform lives when embedded in public services and can also have a transformative effect on institutions. There are six previous reports in this series published over the last three years This report draws together the lessons and insights from those three years.

Nuffield Trust also published ‘Harnessing Social Action to Support Older People’ in October.

Volunteering whether formal or informal is a deeply ingrained part of our culture with 70% of adults in the UK volunteering at least once a year. An aging population, living in increasingly isolated circumstances with more long-term conditions, will require more support than the state alone can provide.

Key themes

The lessons learnt are highlighted by 8 priority themes:

  • Supporting young people to succeed;
  • Using digital technology to save lives;
  • Helping people to better manage their long term conditions;
  • Helping people to age well;
  • Building resilient communities through volunteering;
  • Supporting people back to work;
  • City wide needs;
  • Hospitals.

Lessons learnt as a funder are also considered.


  • Nesta’s work backing 52 innovations to grow demonstrates that social action can transform lives.
  • Social action can also have a transformative impact on the design and delivery of better public services, making them better able to meet increased and new demand from citizens.
  • The sector is growing. There are now many proven social action innovations operating at scale, which can be commissioned by any public service in England.
  • The programme provides evidence that the future of public services can be people powered. However social action is still perceived by many as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an integrated component of open and facilitative public services.

Lessons learnt by theme

  • Social action to transform the lives of young people: this is one of the most established sectors where social action can play a part, with significant evidence and corresponding demand from schools. An example is; volunteers acting as tutors or mentors to improve student academic attainment at school.
  • Using digital technology to change lives: remote volunteering and data donation are two newer forms of social interaction. Using digital technology to connect with volunteers has great potential. For example; people sharing their time in person because they are alerted to a need digitally The London Ambulance service integrated their app in response to 999 calls to alert first aiders to cardiac events in their vicinity. There are also examples of sharing support online.
  • Social action to support people to manage long-term conditions: this is a sector where social action is becoming the norm, including widespread recognition of peer support. For example; placing exercise professionals in GP surgeries to help inactive patients to set realistic goals.
  • Social action to support citizens to age well: in this area savings to the state can be significant and Nesta suggests evidence is well regarded by commissioners. For example; supporting neighbours and reducing isolation through social clubs and one to one friendships.
  • Social action to build resilient communities through impact volunteering: based on the premise that all communities have assets to share (be it skills, talents, time or energy) the lessons here are relevant to all. An example is volunteer medical students teaching emergency life-saving skills to young people at high risk of violence.
  • Social action to support people back to work: this is perhaps the most challenging sector. An example is preparing unemployed people for work by structured placements and connecting them with local employers.
  • Social action to meet city-wide needs: for example running cooking classes with fresh grown vegetables and giving people advice on energy saving.
  • Social action in hospitals: the Helping in Hospitals programme – mealtime friends.

Opportunities for volunteering are important to build social action within local communities.

Lessons learnt as a funder

  • The innovations that succeeded planned for scale from the start and had a clear mode of growth, such as licensing and affiliation or organisational growth;
  • Building the skills for, and prioritising the collection of, quality data is needed if innovations are to grow and demonstrate their impact in order to challenge the status quo and dislodge less effective models;
  • Innovations that are integrated within the public sector infrastructure had the best chance of success;
  • There’s real benefit to grant makers working with an investor mindset; and
  • There’s much to be learnt from failure as well as success.


The full report is long (95 pages) but the text is broken up by helpful infographics and short case studies. The report takes each of the eight priority themes under which innovations were supported, sharing the case studies and impact metrics and drawing out four to five lessons from each. Nesta score themselves against their aims at the start of the project and acknowledge that there is still work to be done.


A model for growth was highlighted as a critical success factor.

Although there is a lot of evidence from the projects, the evidence base referenced in this report could be stronger. In some cases statistics are quoted and statements made and it is unclear where this information has come from. Most of the references listed are Nesta reports with some statistical publications and government reports. More references are given in the Nuffield report previously mentioned. A number of assumptions and presumptions were made which is to some extent necessary with an area like this where the evidence base is narrow but it does make the research less robust. The report however does draw some useful lessons learned regarding the relatively new concept of embedding social action in public and health services.

Summary and conclusions

This report and the depth of examples and stories of impact within it gives weight to Nesta’s long standing premise that mobilising the energy and contributions of members of the public should become a core design and organising principle for public services.

Public services are unsustainable in an age of rising demand and expectations alongside constrained resources. “We need public services that are open not closed, empowering not just managing, and rewarding and recognising”.

To make this happen Nesta think public services must do much more to:

  • Draw upon both the skills and resources in communities to help people to complement the work of public service professionals;
  • Encourage service users – patients, pupils, people in care or jobseekers to help themselves to help each other.

Social action could offer low cost improvements to health and social care used as the norm alongside health and social care providers. Many of the innovations provide a blueprint that could be replicated around the country.

Commissioners should therefore consider implementing some of the social action innovations discussed in this report and evaluate their impact. Social action is an area that is not considered to be the norm and this provides an opportunity for further research to share learning in this area.


Primary paper

Sellick V (2016)  People helping people: lessons learned from three years supporting social action innovations to scale. Nesta.

Other references

Georghiou T et al (2016) Harnessing social action to support older people. Evaluating the Reducing Winter Pressures Fund.  Nuffield Trust.

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