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December 10th, 2020
Justice • Legitimacy • Innovation • Delivery
Toby Lowe Visiting Professor in Public Management

Beyond adaptation: lessons from the frontline on how shared learning fosters trust

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We've been working with different orgs to expand our understanding of the @SystemsHuman approach. @tobyjlowe shares insightful examples.

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Our work on @SystemsHuman has shown how shared learning practices are being used by @LpoolCityRegion @FCDOGovUK to purposefully create trust

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"We’re open with our partners when things are not going well and when we need to change. Openness & honesty is key for building trust"

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Over the past six months, we've been working with different organisations to help expand our understanding of the Human Learning Systems approach. We're bringing together more than 30 case studies of organisations experimenting with HLS practice at local and national government levels, and in many different voluntary and community sector roles.

This work has helped us discover something we hadn't considered before in this context. Learning isn't simply an instrumental practice which increases people's knowledge, or just a way for people to get better at what they do. As the Social Pedagogy folk have known for a long time, when people learn together, it builds trust.

Trust is foundational for doing public management differently. In order to create bespoke responses to each person's ever changing strengths and needs, we need to trust public servants' decision-making, rooted as it is in the deep knowledge that comes from their relationships with those they serve. Trust creates the space for the autonomy that is necessary for them to work in complex environments.

Building trust locally in Liverpool

What we hadn't seen before is how organisations are using shared learning practices to purposefully create this trust. We've seen it now in the work of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority on combating homelessness. As part of the UK government's Housing First set work, the Combined Authority recently took on the responsibility for commissioning homelessness outreach services. They knew they needed to be able to trust the providers they worked with, and vice versa. But they also knew that previous competitive and target-based commissioning practice had meant that they were starting from a very low level of trust.

So, how could they purposefully build trust? By creating environments in which they could learn alongside service providers:

“To build trust with the team and an empathic understanding of the service, the Contract and Monitoring lead has also sought out opportunities to work ‘shoulder to shoulder' with the service delivery team, attending early morning outreach regularly (prior to Covid-19). This is an unusual practice for a commissioner but has been carried out to demonstrate the willingness of the commissioner to listen, learn and accept part of the risk usually carried wholly by the provider….. We have sought to start to create space for learning within the commissioner-provider relationship.” (LCRCA Case study)

Shared learning in national government

We've also been undertaking action research on complexity-informed public management practice at a national level. We've been working alongside the UK government's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office exploring their adaptive management programming through LearnAdapt, a collaboration designed to enable international development actors to learn from and adapt to the complex challenges they face.

Interestingly, we've seen exactly the same process - that learning together builds trust - in that context too.

Learning together creates trust, which in turn creates the space for autonomous decision-making on the ground.

We've seen international development programmes deliberately structured and funded to promote learning. Crucially, those working on the ground created shared learning spaces that were both horizontal (among partners on the ground) and vertical (with programme managers in the same government department). These were spaces where people shared their perspectives of what was happening - in terms of the data collected and their experiences of the work - and made sense of them together:

“We don't pretend that everything works. We're very open with our partners as well when things are not going well or when they're not working as we thought they would, and when we need to change. And I think that openness and honesty is really key for building up trust.

“There's been a lot of attention to detail and keeping people informed, [along with]  maximum transparency about the resources that are being used. “We all come together as participants... to see that change could be possible, and I think that the reflection spaces allow that to happen.”

In this work, we've been able to create a sense of the virtuous cycle that results from learning together as a way to build trust. Learning together creates trust, which in turn creates the space for autonomous decision-making on the ground. And autonomous decision-making enables people to adapt to the constantly changing circumstances of their work. This ongoing adaptation creates the material for continuous learning.

… And many more examples to come

We'll be sharing further ideas about what we're learning from this work over the next couple of months, building up to the launch of our new report on Human Learning Systems, provisionally titled “Living the New World,” in Spring 2021. The report will feature roughly 30 stories of governments across the UK that - like the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Liverpool City Region Combined Authority - are exploring this new complexity-friendly approach to public service delivery.

In the meantime, we'd love to hear whether this resonates with you, and what your experiences of learning together are.

Human Learning Systems Series

We’re exploring how Human Learning Systems can offer a complexity-friendly approach to public service delivery in line with our emerging vision for government. In this series, we highlight the stories of government changemakers who are pioneering this approach - their breakthrough moments, successes, and what they’ve learned from failure - as well as what we’re learning from them along the way.

Explore the Series

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Toby Lowe Visiting Professor in Public Management
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