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Given the complexity of the challenges we’re working to address at the Centre for Public Impact, much of our work contains specialised terminology. These help us communicate specific concepts, but chances are that many people may not be familiar with these terms, or may interpret them differently.

So, we’ve created this glossary of our frequently used words and phrases. This is how we use these terms and is based on our experiences from our work. As a learning organisation, the purpose of this glossary is two-fold.

Firstly, we believe that learning should be as accessible as possible. If we truly want to create solutions to the complex challenges we face, we need to bring everyone on the journey with us. That means it's essential we communicate with people and communities at all levels.

Secondly, we want to learn from and with all of you. So, we intend for this glossary to be living and breathing, constantly reiterated and expanded. There is no one author of this glossary, and no right or wrong definition; everyone is welcome to share suggestions, whether that’s adding a new term, editing a definition, or developing how it's set up so it can be as useful and accessible as possible.

Action-learning: adopting an experimental, iterative mindset to day-to-day activities. Action-learning requires a willingness to embrace failure and a recognition that there will always be opportunities to adapt and improve. Progress is best achieved through a process of continuous learning and adaptation in response to new information. Because change is constant, and things rarely go according to plan in the context of complexity, we should seek to maximise governments’ ability to learn and adapt.

Asset map: a visual tool that helps identify strengths (people, places, or things) that are beneficial or helpful to a community.

Capacity building: the process of developing and strengthening the skills, abilities, processes and resources of organisations or communities.

Changemaker: someone taking action to solve a social problem, typically in an ongoing and collaborative process and learning through doing, reflection, and evaluation.

Community: a group of people who share an identity-forming narrative - a story about themselves that is so important that it defines an aspect of who they are.

Community asset: a person, place, or thing that improves community life in some way.

Community listening sessions: conversations that have two main purposes: 1) to learn directly from community members and 2) to begin building a trusting relationship.

Community of practice: groups of people who share a common concern, set of problems, or an interest in a topic and who learn how to do it better through regular interactions. Learning is the result of the social processes and occurs alongside social interactions, which must be nurtured for a successful community of practice. 

Complexity: the behaviour exhibited by a complex system. A complex system has many different parts that are highly interconnected and interdependent. Complex systems are characterised by emergence (the behaviour of the whole cannot be predicted by understanding the parts), non-linearity and unpredictability (very small (unmeasurable) changes in starting conditions produce very different results, and consequently unpredictable behaviour), path dependence and localisation (the past behaviour of the system influences future possibilities, and these are highly localised - what ‘works’ in a complex system at one place and time, won’t necessarily ‘work’ in another system in a different place, or in the same system at a different time).

Complex systems require different research methods (for example, randomised controlled trials do not work well in complex systems) and different management strategies to simple or complicated systems. Complex systems cannot be controlled or designed.

Co-design: a practice of involving people who have expertise and lived experience throughout a project so that the planning, design, delivery and evaluation benefit from diverse perspectives and sharing of power and resources. Co-design can be applied as a method in a wide variety of contexts, but central to the process is a visual, creative and generative approach to problem solving and learning. 

Co-create: to create a solution or tool with one or more others. Where co-design is a more intensive process, co-creation is a specific act of collaborative learning through making. In the context of government, co-creation can help public servants work with residents to dig deeply into a problem and drive community-endorsed solutions.

Curiosity: starting from a position of exploring assumptions, embracing a learning mindset and intentionally testing emerging theories or patterns for usefulness or estimation.

Deep listening: a process of listening to learn. Deep listening means being genuinely curious about someone else’s story, with a strong desire to understand both their story and the underpinning values and motivations that drive their narrative.

Digital equity: when individuals and communities have democratic access to digital devices and infrastructure, as well as the digital skills needed to participate fully in society, democracy and the economy

Dignity: the inherent value and inherent vulnerability of individuals. Dignity is a desire to be seen, heard, listened to and treated fairly; to be recognised, understood and to feel safe in the world.

Dignity-centred design: to design technologies, products, services and institutions in a way that starts from a place of respect, empathy and a belief in equitable access and inclusion. 

Dignity ecosystem: a dignity ecosystem takes a dynamic view of dignity – ever-present, but not immune to the system in which it sits. Both protective and proactive roles are important to keep the dignity ecosystem in balance.

Dignity lens: a way to think about government’s protective and proactive roles prioritising the concept of dignity. For example one might use Donna Hicks’ 10 Essential Elements of Dignity to appraise a policy or an action.

Earned legitimacy: represents the idea that, due to past actions that have harmed BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalised communities, governments must be reconciliatory and apologetic about these past actions and demonstrate a commitment to confront the racial justice and civil rights issues that continue to impact communities.

Experimentation: the action or process of testing out ideas to see whether they add value, usually in comparison with business as usual or another potential valuable approach or intervention. 

Equity: a state in which everyone has access to the same opportunities and the same likelihood of success, which is intentionally designed by correcting systemic imbalances.

Evaluation: the process through which we explore whether we have contributed any value to what we were trying to affect. We might do this from the perspective of value to those most affected, those who are accountable for success or those who are in governance or funding positions. We will always use evaluation as an opportunity for learning.

Failing forward: the ability and courage of governments to identify, learn from and do something about failure, and in doing so, translate innovation to impact. 

Government: the activities, methods, and principles involved in governing a state or community. 

Government innovation: the introduction of new or improved approaches to public administration and services, to create better outcomes for people and communities. 

Human Learning Systems: is a radically new way of doing public management: the task of resourcing and organising public service. It starts with the complex reality of the lives of people being supported. It enables workers to build relationships and learn together with those they support. It focuses managers and leaders on creating learning environments at different system scales, by enacting learning as a management strategy.

Human-centred design: an approach to designing that focuses on the needs of people, rather than an abstract challenge or idea for an innovation. To make sure we are designing with, not designing for, we often encourage a participatory approach through co-creation and co-design processes. 

Humility: recognising personal limitations, not positioning oneself as the expert or holder of all knowledge, and being open when we discover that we are wrong.

Ideation: thinking with a purpose; a process for generating ideas and solutions that calls on the community to get involved in the conversation in ways beyond just submitting feedback and responding to surveys or discussion threads.

Inclusive economy: a system that is intentionally designed to prioritise the flourishing of all people and the planet.

Learning: the process of developing new knowledge, skills and capacities. Learning occurs in many different ways. CPI encourages learning through action learning and sensemaking - structured exploration, experimentation and reflection.

Learning as management strategy: an approach to public management which enables public service to respond to the unique complex systems which create outcomes in each person’s life. It changes the purpose of management from control to learning.

Learning Cycle: a structured process, coordinated by a Systems Steward, which enables actors in a system (people/organisations) to understand the systems which create the outcomes they care about, design and undertake explorations and experiments to change the patterns of results in those systems, and embed what they learn in the behaviour and structures of those systems.

Learning partner: an organisation or person that helps others build their capacity to learn, often by supporting them to centre all of their work in experimentation, data gathering, sensemaking, reflection and reflexivity.

Legitimacy: the broad reservoir of support and trust that allows governments to deliver positive outcomes for people. 

Meaningful measurement: an approach to measurement which balances the need for measurement for learning and improvement with the need to justify activity and outcomes for proportional and forward thinking accountability.

Openness: being open-minded, non-judgemental, and curious; intentionally seeking out perspectives different than oneself’s and embracing failures as opportunities to learn and grow.

Paradigm shift: profound change in both the underlying beliefs, and supporting practices, in a particular discipline.

Peer learning network: A group of industry-specific professionals who connect intentionally to discuss, address, and share best practices on a particular complex issue. 

People’s Panel: The People’s Panel was established in March 2019 to help CPI Europe stay connected to the issues that matter to people. Based around the UK, the panelists are a group of people with a diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives, passionate about representing the views of citizens and ensuring public services and governments work well.

Public policy: the actions, plans and laws adopted by a government.

Public impact: the action of government and/or changemakers, that has a positive effect on the public.

Public management: the task of resourcing and organising public service.

Public services: services that are intended to serve all members of a community, such as healthcare, electricity, transport, housing, police and education. These services are usually provided by governments but can also be delivered by private businesses or voluntary organisations. 

Reimagine: challenging what is by asking what could be.

Sensemaking: creating space for listening, reflection and the exploration of meaning beyond the usual boundaries, allowing different framings, stories and viewpoints to be shared and collectively explored.

Shared power principle: power is shared and decision-making rights are devolved to those with the information and agency to make a difference. 

System: a set of relationships between "actors" (people/organisations) and "factors" (structural drivers, such as someone's income or wealth) which combine to make something (like an outcome) happen in the world. The boundaries of a system (who/what is included/excluded) are created by those who name and describe it.

Systems change: an intentional process designed to alter the status quo by shifting the conditions that are holding a pattern of interactions in place.

Systems convening: the act of bringing people together across different practices, organisations, goals, and cultures to enable learning across boundaries.

Systems map: visual tool that shows the connections between different actors in a system. The visualisation can help show who is most and least connected in the system. System maps can help visualise where power sits.

System stewardship: the task of bringing together actors in a system to learn effectively together. It is a new way of working that allows governments and their agents to effectively attend to and influence systems from which outcomes emerge.

Systems transformation: a profound change in the way that members of a system act and interact, resulting in dramatically different outcomes and impacts.

Anything we're missing?

Come across a word or phrase in our work that you think should be included in this glossary? Let us know.