Skip to content
Commentary August 25th, 2021
Innovation • Justice • Legitimacy
Lena Kuenkel Director, Europe

Reimagining government in Europe: what we’re learning

Article highlights


.@LenaKuenkel reflects on @CPI_foundation's previous work in Europe, and explores their role in helping to #reimaginegovernment as a learning partner going forward

Share article

To date, @CPI_foundation's work in Europe has focused on reimagining relationships between govts, people & planet, redesigning public services & building learning environments

Share article

'If we expect those who we work with to adopt learning as a strategy, how do we ensure we keep learning and experimenting in our own organisation?' @LenaKuenkel asks in this @CPI_foundation article

Share article

I joined CPI in 2017, driven to be part of an organisation that seeks to bring about change. Not just in how government works, but how government is; how it relates and connects with people. 

We had just published the Public Impact Fundamentals, a framework to help policymakers think holistically about impact and how to improve outcomes for people. Over the last four years, we have moved on. We still stand by the Fundamentals. However, we have evolved our thinking on the relationship between government and citizens and how to create a learning environment in government. 

Reflecting on our previous work, we have realised that the best way we can help to reimagine government is as a learning partner. Being a learning partner - an organisation that helps others build their capacity to learn - is a really exciting role for us. As we continue to explore what this means, there is much to learn from what we’ve achieved in the past:

We have realised that the best way we can help to reimagine government is as a learning partner.

Looking back

Our work in Europe focuses on three key things: reimagining relationships between government, people and planet, redesigning public services and building learning environments. 

Reimagining relationships 

The question of how we can strengthen relationships between people and government has been a key theme of our work for many years. One way we have been exploring this in Europe is through the lens of climate change. If governments around the world are to successfully transition to net-zero emissions, there needs to be significant engagement with and commitment from the public. We worked with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to develop our understanding of how to engage the public around climate change, and build knowledge around the most effective methods of communication, collaboration and engagement.

Alongside Changing Lives, we have also experimented with new ways of building listening into public services. We conducted two phases of listening conversations in 2020 where we spoke to 130+ people experiencing multiple disadvantages across Northeastern England. We produced two reports, published in October 2020 and May 2021. These underline the importance of listening as we seek to rebuild from the Covid-19 pandemic, revealing new ways of involving the public in decision-making processes and service design.  

Redesigning public services 

While relationships are hugely important, we have also been exploring the structures and principles of public management. What are the enabling conditions that allow positive outcomes to emerge?

CPI, Frontline and Buurtzorg Britain & Ireland, teamed up with 80+ social workers, practitioners and local authority leaders to explore how children’s social care in England could be designed to produce better outcomes for children and families. The result, a blueprint for children’s social care, outlined how local authorities could redesign children's social care services to put relationships at the heart. We are continuing our work in this area through the Small Changes programme. Co-developed with social workers, this is a 2-3 month programme for social work managers, to give them the space, tools, inspiration and connections to help drive change.

We have also been proud to partner with Bloomberg Philanthropies on their European Digital Cities programme. This has involved supporting 20+ cities across Europe to design more citizen-centred services that deliver better results for residents. It has been inspiring to see digital leaders innovating and reimagining how local government services are delivered throughout the continent.   

Building learning environments 

The people and organisations we work with are grappling with hugely complex challenges. We believe that the most effective strategy to navigate such complexity is a learning approach. 

Working with the Human Learning Systems Collaborative - a network of public service change advocates - we have been exploring how to bring about a transformation in how public management is done. Human Learning Systems: Public Service for the Real World, outlines this radical new model for public management, and documents over 50 examples of organisations pioneering this approach around the world.

We’ve also established a community of practice to bring together national and local regulators, local public sector organisations and charities in the UK, to improve ways of working around regulation. 

Most recently, we partnered with Lankelly Chase, the RSA and social learning pioneers Beverly and Etienne Wenger-Trayner, to develop a book, Systems Convening: A crucial form of leadership for the 21st century. This research captures interviews with 40 systems conveners from around the world, and serves as a vital resource for those working on pressing social issues, to apply this crucial leadership approach to their work.

Looking ahead

Since I re-joined the Europe team from maternity leave five months ago, I've been struck by how much our work has evolved in such a short time -- and inspired by the changemakers we work with across these projects. It's such a privilege to help them create the space to make sense of the complex challenges we face.

Every project here in Europe is shaped by its unique context, people and perspectives, that continuously reminds us to reflect on our own biases and limitations. We plan to keep learning from this diversity, and I am proud of our small team of nine who are not only delivering amazing work but also helping to create CPI as a learning organisation, in and of itself. Looking ahead, we will be focusing our energy on the following:

Continuing our learning journey 

I’ve been passionate about organisational design for most of my career and have been keen to continue our exploration of how the principles of self-management apply in practice -- and as importantly, support our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As we continue our exploration of a self-managed way of working, a big focus for me will be thinking about how we can best embed learning into our team’s own processes and structures.

If we expect those who we work with to adopt learning as a strategy, how do we ensure we keep learning and experimenting in our own organisation? 

Exploring new ways of being a learning partner

We are also planning to launch an international community of practice around Human Learning Systems (HLS); start a learning enquiry into the role of residents within HLS;  and explore how fundamental societal shifts, particularly climate change, will require governments to respond differently.

As we continue on this journey, what keeps us motivated is the incredible work we see by those around us, and the joy of being part of an ever-growing movement of changemakers around the world. If you're working to reimagine government in Europe, we'd love to learn more about what you’re doing and see how we might be able to work together. You can learn more about our approach here.

Reimagining Government in Europe

We support partners across government, the public sector, and civil society to have the knowledge, skills, and tools needed to deliver public services that help everyone thrive.

Are you interested in reimagining government with us?

Find out more

Written by:

Lena Kuenkel Director, Europe
View biography
Share this article: