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Commentary Article January 13th, 2022
Innovation • Delivery • Justice • Cities • Legitimacy • Technology

What is sensemaking?

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.@CPI_foundation helps govt orgs by supporting them on their learning journeys & helping them to build the mindsets, culture, capabilities, and tools that will enable them to commit to a process of continuous #experimentation 🔬 & #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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"Sensemaking is about 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." @CPI_foundation

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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

Last spring, our Executive Director, Adrian Brown, shared what we’ve been learning about reimagining government over the past few years and introduced CPI as a learning partner: an organization that helps others build their own capacity to learn.

This is how we believe that we can best help government organisations, by supporting them on their learning journeys and helping them to build the mindsets, culture, capabilities, and tools that will enable them to commit to a process of continuous experimentation and learning.

Within our definition, there are two complementary sets of practices that encourage different types of learning, and which form the core of our role as a learning partner. We’ve called these two sets of practices sensemaking and action-learning.

But what does playing the role of a learning partner actually look like in practice? And what do sensemaking and action-learning actually involve?

In the true spirit of being a learning partner, we are continually learning about what it means to be one, and we want to share that knowledge more widely so that others can benefit. However, we understand that some may be less familiar with the learning partner role, and concepts like sensemaking and action-learning.

As such, we’re embarking on a series of articles which will explore and share what it means to be a learning partner. We’ll be sharing what we have learned based on our own work with those in and around government, but we’ll also be looking to share the reflections from changemakers who are reimagining government in their own words. In this first piece of the series, we’re taking a closer look at sensemaking, what it is, and practical examples of it in action.

Defining sensemaking

For us, sensemaking is about 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.

The purpose of sensemaking is to develop a set of insights with explanatory possibilities rather than a body of knowledge or plan of action. It requires a leap of faith coupled with an openness to all that can be seen, heard, felt, and intuited. It challenges the notion that one way of thinking can ever be enough to understand the complexities of the world and helps us to break out of narrow or simplistic framings.

Sensemaking is about 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.

Sensemaking - what it looks like in practice

Sensemaking can involve a number of different activities. To illustrate what sensemaking actually looks like in practice, we’ve drawn together examples from some of our current and past projects. We believe that sensemaking works best when it goes hand in hand with action-learning, and indeed, much of our work as a learning partner involves elements of both. However, for the purposes of diving more deeply into the topic, we’ve chosen to focus the examples below on sensemaking specifically.

Understanding and facilitating deep listening and earned legitimacy through community engagement

  • Finding legitimacy: Understanding what building and maintaining legitimacy means today through the eyes of citizens matters more than ever. The same goes for understanding what governments can do to strengthen their relationships with citizens. That’s why, in 2017, we embarked upon a worldwide listening project to better understand what legitimacy means to people. We conducted research and conversations with 400 citizens and 120 experts from government and academia across 25 countries, which provided the foundations for our Finding a more human government report. Since then, we have continued to build upon this work. This includes conducting a legitimacy survey in America ahead of the 2019 Presidential Election to understand the differing perceptions of government legitimacy among the American public and the varying causes for mistrust. We also launched an Earned Legitimacy Learning Cohort to build legitimacy with marginalized communities in four U.S. cities and counties.

  • Learning to Listen Again: In the summer of 2020, we embarked on a journey to learn how to listen. We spoke to 90 people experiencing multiple disadvantages, who are in contact with the charity Changing Lives, across Northeastern England. Through this work, we realised that trusting relationships, having choice over how listening took place, and making a difference, were all crucially important to this group and formed the basis of what they saw as key requirements for good listening. We conducted a second phase of listening from October 2020 to April 2021, and made use of collective sense-making to understand the emerging themes. This work highlighted key questions for government, professionals, and civil society to ask themselves when considering how to build listening into how public and voluntary services are designed and delivered, and how to better learn from and respond to what is heard.

Building communities of practice

  • Pandemic Solutions Group: In April 2020, The Rockefeller Foundation launched the Pandemic Solutions Group (PSG) - a peer-learning network of public officials from over 50 U.S. cities, states, and Tribal Nations leading efforts to scale COVID-19 testing, vaccination and other public health measures in their communities. Through our role as the Secretariat of the PSG we provided oversight and support to the group, fostering the conditions for our PSG members to listen, learn, and adapt. The group met every two weeks to learn emerging methods and techniques from pioneering practitioners across the country, as well as share best practices related to a range of pandemic response topics. Through this work, we were able to see firsthand the value of a horizontal learning network to help practitioners learn from their complex environments and adapt their response to better meet the needs of their communities.

  • Building more generative relationships around regulation in the UK: With support from Lankelly Chase, we set up a Community of Practice of over 40 national regulators, local public sector organisations and charities. We wanted to bring together those on both sides of regulation - those who ensure it is being upheld and those whose work is guided by it - to explore how to work together in a different way. Alongside Easier Inc, we are supporting the learning journey of the Community of Practice. We aim to do this by enabling sensemaking and shared learning from the successes and challenges of diverse regulatory relationships across the world. In addition, by promoting multi-agency conversations, the Community of Practice allows different framings and viewpoints to be explored.

  • DC COVID Response Collaborative: In partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation and the D.C. Office of the State Secretary of Education (OSSE), we launched the D.C. COVID Response Collaborative (DCRC). The DCRC is a peer learning network designed to help Local Education Agencies (LEAs) across Washington, D.C. share knowledge and resources about testing and positive case response practices that help to keep children and staff safe in schools. Since December 2021, sessions have featured national experts and practitioners, and provided the necessary space for school leaders to connect and to discuss the evolving challenges of the pandemic and how to best address them.

Understanding drivers of systemic inequity and centring historically underrepresented groups in the response

  • Building inclusive economies: In response to the dual crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice in 2020, we partnered with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth to publish Built for All: A Global Framework for Building Inclusive Economies. The Built for All framework specifies 18 outcomes for philanthropy, business, and governments to reimagine and rebuild the economy for the flourishing of all people and the planet. Our team is always eager to go from insights to action, so we asked the experts and local leaders who are doing the work about their approach to economic inclusion. In early 2021, CPI conducted 15 interviews with 30 public servants in city governments across the United States. The purpose of this ‘listening series’ was to understand the most significant roadblocks in building inclusive economies, and explore how CPI and other changemakers can best support city governments.

  • Storytelling for systems change: Working with Dusseldorp Forum and Hands Up Mallee, we have been exploring how stories can be used to more effectively communicate the impact of community-led systems change work. We talked to a range of people to uncover the story of storytelling - including collective impact backbone team members, community members, storytelling experts, and those working in and around community-led systems change initiatives across Australia. We explored the roles stories play in different communities; what good storytelling looks like; what barriers to storytelling might be; and what role stories can play in supporting systems change. Our learning and key findings from this project are captured in this report: Storytelling for Systems Change: Insights from the field.

Working on the world’s most complex challenges

 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.

  • Engaging the Public on Climate Change: Climate change is one of the most urgent and complex challenges that we face today. 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 produced a report around the most effective methods of engaging people and communities with the intent to communicate, collaborate and intervene. We also developed a case study compendium which shines a light on different approaches to public engagement on climate change from around the world. This provides practitioners working on this with a framework to unpack the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches.

Conducting research to surface emerging insights

  • Innovation in the face of crisis: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted societies across the world in countless ways. In Europe, cities have worked hard to rally resources and unify experts from across sectors and governments to find innovative solutions to critical problems. As part of our efforts to support global idea-sharing, we collaborated with GovInsider and the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) to put out a call for innovative government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. We used this as a basis to develop a report - Innovation in the face of crisis - which shares insights from European cities’ rapid and creative reactions to the pandemic. Inspired by these ideas, other city governments can create similar initiatives, adapted to their own urban context and meeting the needs of all citizens.

  • AI and dignity: Dignity is a core value underpinning democracy, and central to being human. It is therefore vital for governments to create conditions which enable people to live dignified lives. Governments do this by both protecting and promoting peoples’ dignity – we call this cultivating a Dignity Ecosystem. We wanted to understand to what extent government AI ethics principles, frameworks or directives work to protect and proactively promote peoples’ dignity. To understand this, we created a Dignity Lens - a diagnostic tool to help us understand the health of the Dignity Ecosystem. We then applied this Dignity Lens to AI ethics instruments of the governments of Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Our research revealed that it’s not dignity per se that’s missing from AI ethics instruments, what’s missing, or at the very least lacks prominence, are proactive government roles, which are needed to support a healthy Dignity Ecosystem.

Sharing what we’re learning and amplifying the voices of changemakers

In addition to the examples above, we’re continually sharing what we’re learning on the way. Whether that’s on our website through blogs, reports, and case studies, appearing on podcasts, or speaking at events. We’re also always on the lookout to help amplify the voices of changemakers, and to hear what ideas, insights and experiences they can share with our network.

We’ll be continuing to share content about what it means to be a learning partner through this series over the coming months. We believe that sensemaking is key to the learning partner role, and we hope that this first piece has helped illustrate CPI’s definition of sensemaking, the varied activities it involves, and the value it can bring to those seeking to reimagine government so that it works for everyone.

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What does sensemaking mean to you?

We’ve shared our definition of sensemaking 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 sensemaking means to them.

Do you have a story to tell about how you’ve used sensemaking in your work? If yes, then we’d love to hear from you!

Share your story with us

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