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The Policy Ask with Ravi Gurumurthy: “We need to incentivise electrification rather than hold it back”

The CEO of social change charity Nesta on Mahatma Gandhi, the urgency of home insulation, and why we need a more compassionate policy for refugees.  

By Spotlight

Ravi Gurumurthy is CEO of Nesta, a charity that uses technology and innovation to create social change. He was previously responsible for designing, testing and scaling products and services for people affected by crisis at the International Rescue Committee, and before this held a number of roles in UK government. This included director of strategy at the former Department of Energy and Climate Change, and strategic adviser to the foreign secretary.

How do you start your working day? 

The day begins abruptly, usually with an accidental kick in the head from my youngest daughter, who will be flailing around having snuck into the bed during the night. I try to get an hour of work done before any distractions. I then head into the office using a kick-scooter to the train station and enjoy scooting over Waterloo Bridge. Before the meeting deluge, I run through the to-do list and work out what I can get done.

What has been your career high? 

In government, there are times when there is a political opening and you can achieve huge change. I led Every Child Matters (a green paper on the reform of child care), and the creation of the Children Act in 2004, which brought together education and children’s social care into a children’s department in government and in local authorities. I was also one of the architects of the Climate Change Act 2008, the world’s first piece of climate legislation. But the most fulfilling work was at the International Rescue Committee, when we won the $100m MacArthur prize in 2017 that created the biggest early childhood development programme in humanitarian settings, including a new Sesame Street programme designed for Syrian refugees.  

What has been the most challenging moment of your career? 

I was asked by the late cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, when I was just 25, to lead a children’s green paper. He declared a moratorium on all new policy development across government until the green paper, which infuriated several cabinet ministers. It then became known I was proposing to move family policy and social services into the Department of Education under a new children’s minister. A high-profile politician decided to write round cabinet demanding that I was sacked (he was later forced to retract it by Heywood). I had shingles at the time, and I remember the letter popping up on my email and feeling like my computer had just punched me.

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[See also: The Policy Ask with Gail Bradbrook: “I don’t believe the UK is a functional democracy”]

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If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be? 

I learned a huge amount from my short time in local government, and then later at a humanitarian organisation. I’d have liked to have spent much more time early in my career zig-zagging in and out of more front-line delivery roles, as it would have given me a much more realistic and nuanced understanding of how you make change happen. Spending time in Whitehall with people with very similar (and narrow) experiences reinforces a very myopic world-view, so I’d suggest forcing myself out of my comfort zone.

Which political figure inspires you?  

I was always intrigued by Mahatma Gandhi growing up, less as a moral figure, but more by his ability to manipulate public opinion, coerce and outfox opponents, and his use of language and symbols to build a social movement. I was also inspired by his idea of “swaraj”, which had been narrowly defined as home rule or “self-rule”, but which Gandhi broadened to cover all aspects of empowerment.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?  

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy was announced in 2016 to encourage soft drinks manufacturers to reformulate their recipes to reduce sugar content. By the time it was introduced in 2018, most drinks had been reformulated to duck under the tax threshold, set at 5g of sugar per 100ml. Industry profits and sales were maintained but sugar consumption in soft drinks fell by 30 per cent between 2015 and 2018. We need to rely less on individual willpower to tackle obesity, and more on changing the food environment.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?  

The next phase of net zero is all about the electrification of cars and heating buildings. To make that happen, we need the price of electricity to fall relative to gas. Otherwise we’ll be more reliant on subsidies for heat pumps. Right now, electricity bills include the subsidies used to build wind farms and solar power over the last decade. I’d shift those onto our gas bills, so we incentivise electrification rather than hold it back.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to? 

The government is launching an energy efficiency campaign to help reduce household energy use by 15 per cent by 2030. One of the five measures being promoted is Nesta’s campaign ⁠–⁠ MoneySavingBoilerChallenge.com ⁠–⁠ to turn the flow temperature of combi boilers down to 60 degrees Celsius. This small tweak saves consumers £112 a year on average. More than 160,000 people have done this already; if we can get this rolled out to 10 million UK households with combi boilers, we could save £1bn next year and 1.7 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?  

Uganda has the most generous and progressive policy on refugees in the world. People entering the country have a right to work, can access government education and health services, enjoy freedom of movement, and are given a plot of land to enable them to be self-sufficient. Refugees are welcome.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?  

A decent homes standard by 2032 which ensures all homes have high energy efficiency and no new gas boilers could be installed. This is important for net zero but will also help if high energy prices are sustained this decade. Heat pumps deliver three units of energy for one unit of electricity – even if they were all powered by gas-powered fire stations (not at all likely), we’d save up to 40 per cent of home energy use.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Adam Lent: “You can’t rip resources away from councils and claim to have a moral compass”]