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Responding to complexity in public services

3 November 2020



Black maze and floor with yellow solution path with arrow.

A paper in Public Money & Management discusses the merits of the emerging ‘Human Learning Systems’ (HLS) approach to the funding, commissioning and management of public services. The Human Learning Systems offers a framework which bridges academic complexity theory and the diverse contexts of public practice.

This is in response to public management approaches based on principles of marketisation. These are being seen to fail when faced with the complex world of public services.

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The challenge

The public sector is challenged to achieve goals that are interconnected, ambiguous and wicked. This is in an environment where complexity is as an inherent feature of modern governance.

Complexity creates several challenges for the public sector. A range of approaches have been developed to address these challenges including the Vanguard method and the Cynefin framework.

A conversation has been taking place among policymakers and service professionals on developing an approach to public management which is compatible with the complex realities of contemporary public and non-profit management. This has led to the HLS approach.

HLS takes a holistic approach to funding, managing and commissioning in the context of complexity. It is informed:

  • deductively by complexity-informed academic scholarship
  • inductively through the practice and experimentation of over 300 organisations across the UK and beyond.

The HLS approach to public services

As its starting point, HLS takes the view that the purpose of public service is to help improve service outcomes. With HLS, the outcomes public service organisations are commissioned to deliver are not independently produced by those designing interventions or services. Instead they are informed by the systems in which they are embedded.

This complexity challenge can be structured across multiple levels:

  • Experiential complexity: from the variation in how outcomes are experienced by individuals, and the multiple pathways to shared outcomes across the population.
  • Compositional complexity: from the interdependence among causal factors leading to the creation of outcomes.
  • Dynamic complexity: from the co-evolution of interacting factors and the instability inherent to complex systems.
  • Governance complexity: from the autonomy of public service organisations and other actors, and the fragmentation of modern public service landscape.

HLS in practice

HLS is underpinned by three thematic areas:

1. Human

There is a human element in the design and operation of public services, which has been eroded by managerialism and metric-focused service design. This element of HLS tackles experiential complexity as a necessity in understanding and responding to people’s needs and strengths. Ways of designing services are needed which engage with rounded human beings who bring their own strengths and capabilities. Services need to be people- or human-centred.

2. Learning

HLS has a focus on learning and its centrality to the purpose of performance management and evaluation. It is a process in which a public service problem is identified, experiments are undertaken to identify ‘what works’ and then these solutions are taken to scale.

HLS has identified the following ways in which an ongoing learning approach is operationalised:

  • an iterative, experimental approach to working with people
  • funding and commissioning for learning, not services—shifting from commissioning specified services to funding organisations’ capacity to learn
  • using data to learn—using monitoring data for reflection, rather than target-based performance management
  • creating a learning culture—creating a ‘positive error culture’ in which people are encouraged to talk with their peers about mistakes and uncertainties in their practice.

3. Systems

HLS identifies the potential for ‘system stewarding’ roles to ensure systems can operate effectively to produce desired outcomes. This involves:

  • building relationships and trust between actors in a system
  • establishing shared purpose
  • developing shared values, principles and behaviours.

Systemic practice is located at the funding and commissioning level. The distribution of financial resources plays a critical role in improving the health of that system, for example, by promoting collaboration rather than competition.

What it means

HLS has emerged as a distinctive agenda for the public and non-profit sectors with a significant profile in the UK and internationally. Over 40 organisations practice HLS and 15 of those have formed a collaborative body to develop HLS and promulgate practice.

HLS has helped improve practices in the face of complexity by:

  • providing a language for expressing shared, but often unseen, practices
  • sparking practice-sharing among organisations pursuing complexity-informed practice
  • acting as a connective framework and providing an overarching conceptual grounding within complexity-informed management theory.

Want to read more?

Responding to complexity in public services—the human learning systems approach – Toby Lowe, Max French, Melissa Hawkins, Hannah Hesselgreaves and Rob Wilson, Public Money & Management, October 2020

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Published Date: 3 November 2020