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Commentary Article March 15th, 2022
Delivery • Innovation • Justice • Legitimacy • Cities • Technology

What is action-learning?

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What does the role of a learning partner look like in practice? What do sensemaking & action-learning involve? 🤔 @CPI_foundation answers in a series of articles sharing what they've learned based on work in & around government

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"Action-learning is about adopting an experimental, iterative mindset to day-to-day activities. It requires a willingness to embrace failure and a recognition that there will always be opportunities to adapt and improve." @CPI_foundation

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From collaborating with partners like @BloombergDotOrg & @EarthshotPrize to test and learn, to building learning cultures like #FailingForward; explore how @CPI_foundation are implementing action-learning in their work

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Partnering for Learning

We put our vision for government into practice through learning partner projects that align with our values and help reimagine government so that it works for everyone.

Partner with us

At the beginning of this year we explored sensemaking, one of the two complementary sets of practices that form the core of our role as a learning partner, for those seeking to reimagine government. Now, we’re turning our attention to the other side of the learning partner continuum, action-learning. So, what does action-learning mean?

Defining action-learning

At CPI, action-learning is about adopting an experimental, iterative mindset to day-to-day activities. It requires a willingness to embrace failure and a recognition that there will always be opportunities to adapt and improve.

Action-learning asks how we can better orient services, organisations, and systems to be continuously learning rather than optimising them for standardisation and control. In doing so, action-learning challenges traditional notions of accountability and hierarchy.

Action-learning asks how we can better orient services, organisations, and systems to be continuously learning rather than optimising them for standardisation and control.

Action learning - what it looks like in practice

Like sensemaking, action-learning encompasses a wide range of activities. Below are just a few examples of how we’ve implemented action-learning in our work with partners.

Piloting new approaches that explore our vision for government

  • A different vision for Children’s Social Care: For many children, social workers play a crucial role in laying the foundations for a better future. In 2019, CPI, Frontline and Buurtzorg UK and Ireland teamed up with more than 80 children’s social workers and system leaders. We wanted to explore what a children’s social care service could look like if it were to prioritise relationships with children and families, and better empower social workers to support them. Together, we developed the Blueprint for Children’s Social Care; a vision for a different way. Since then, we’ve continued our work with local authorities to make this vision a reality for them. Alongside Frontline, we are now supporting three local authorities to make the systemic change needed to enable social workers to spend more time with children and families and do their best work.

  • Human Learning Systems: Our Vision for Better Government talks about the importance of complexity, human relationships, and continuous learning. This is what Human Learning Systems (HLS)  - a new approach to public management - explores. It is based on three key principles: allowing public servants to be human; creating learning environments; and nurturing healthy systems - where people can coordinate and collaborate effectively. Produced together with a collective of other organisations, our e-book, Human Learning Systems: Public Service for the Real World, sets out what we’ve learned and documents 50 case studies of the HLS approach in different contexts. We are now supporting different organisations to apply the HLS approach to their work.

Collaborating with partners to test and learn

  • Mayor’s Challenge: The Mayor’s Challenge is an ideas competition for cities to create big and bold solutions to their toughest problems. Winning cities receive $1 million and expert coaching to put their breakthrough idea into action and, ultimately, to spread their ideas to other cities around the world. The Mayors Challenge helps city leaders build their innovation muscles and experiment with new ways of problem solving that put residents at the centre of solutions. Leaders learn key skills such as: defining a problem; cocreating ideas with residents; testing, learning and adapting; as well as how to pivot with purpose. Since 2018, we have been proud to partner with Bloomberg Philanthropies to design and deliver the challenge, scaling it to a global competition in 2021.

  • The Earthshot Prize: The Earthshot Prize is a new global prize for the environment from His Royal Highness Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge. In 2021, the Earthshot Prize was awarded to 5 winners for the very first time, and will continue to be awarded to 5 winners per year over the next 9 years. Through this, and the winners’ work, the Earthshot Prize will provide at least 50 solutions to the world’s greatest problems by 2030. We partnered with The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to design and implement a rigorous nomination and selection process for the prize. This included working with environmental and conservation organisations, as well as communications and prize experts, to develop and iterate the prize’s design.

  • The Opportunity Project for Cities: The Opportunity Project for Cities brings together governments, community leaders, and tech volunteers to address local challenges through the power of open data and community engagement. During the program, cities create a series of customised digital tools that speak to residents’ most pressing needs. Alongside this we have developed the The Opportunity Project for Cities sprint toolkit, a step-by-step resource for community-driven innovation sprints in cities. The toolkit contains everything local governments need to transform public data into digital tools that address pressing local challenges. The Opportunity Project for Cities was inspired by the U.S. Census Bureau’s The Opportunity Project and adapted for local contexts by the Centre for Public Impact and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. The Opportunity Project for Cities is supported by the Knight Foundation and Google.org.

  • European Digital Innovation Initiative: We participated in the delivery of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ European Digital Cities programme. This involved working with 19 cities across Europe to accelerate digital innovation to improve critical services and deliver better results for residents. Through the programme, cities built capabilities in the different skills needed for successful digital transformation, and were supported to test and experiment with new approaches to delivering digital services. This ranged from reimagining how older residents are supported in Vilnius, to redesigning employment services in Helskini and modernising how social housing repairs are handled in Dublin.

  • Innovation Training Program: CPI delivers Innovation Training in partnership with the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University. Innovation Training helps cities adopt cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with the potential for long-term impact. Participating cities receive access to a state-of-the-art innovation curriculum that teaches the public innovation approach; a dedicated design coach that works with each city to apply the innovation approaches to their chosen problems; and participation in a deep network of other public innovators across the globe. Last year’s cohort reached 130 public servants in 12 cities - ranging from Boise, Idaho to Glendale, California - helping them to develop more than 83 ideas and 48 prototypes to make an impact in their community.

Innovation Training on Zoom with city participants Innovation Training on Zoom with city participants
  • Bloomberg-Harvard City Leadership Initiative: The Bloomberg-Harvard City Leadership Initiative advances leadership, management, and innovation in cities. Within the initiative, CPI supports the Innovation Track, which helps cities adopt cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with the potential for long-term impact. Participating cities receive ten months of tailored coaching to learn about design concepts and implement them in their city. Since becoming involved in the program in August 2018, CPI has worked with three cohorts. We have led 45 cities and 500+ public servants to apply design-based innovation techniques and develop 88 prototypes to test ideas to impact complex challenges in their communities.

Building learning cultures

  • Learning Partnership with the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria: CPI ANZ is working with the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria’s Executive Leadership Group (ELG) to support them as a learning partner as they undertake an ambitious digital transformation agenda. CPI will support the ELG through coaching and monthly learning circles, which will offer inspiration through conversations with international digital transformation experts, as well as a space for the ELG to reflect and engage in peer-learning. The learning circles will be action-oriented - designed to equip ELG members to take away new ideas to test and learn from, as part of the learning cycle.

  • Fail Forward: In government, a culture that enables learning from failure is the critical link between innovation and impact. However, these cultures are notoriously difficult to develop and sustain. In 2020, we published a report in partnership with the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation to explore why it is so challenging for local governments to learn from failure and what they can do about it. Since publishing the report, we have translated the findings into an action-learning program in partnership with the National Association of County Administrators (NACA). In this year-long program, four U.S. counties explore their own internal barriers to learning from failure and then test out different cultural and systemc changes they can make to overcome these barriers.

In government, a culture that enables learning from failure is the critical link between innovation and impact. However, these cultures are notoriously difficult to develop and sustain.

We’ll continue to share content about what it means to be a learning partner through this series over the coming months. Like sensemaking, action-learning is vital to the learning partner role and we hope these examples have helped illuminate what it can look like. We believe that cultivating such an experimental mindset is key to unlocking new ways of doing government, and ultimately, better outcomes for people everywhere.

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What does action-learning mean to you?

We’ve shared our definition of action-learning and some examples of how we’ve applied this with our partners working in and around government. But, we also want to hear from changemakers about what it means to them.

Do you have a story to tell about how you’ve taken an action-learning approach in your work? If yes, then we’d love to hear from you!

Share your story with us

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