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Commentary April 27th, 2021
Innovation • Justice • Delivery
Adrian Brown Executive Director of the Centre for Public Impact

What we’re learning about reimagining government

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Through sensemaking & action-learning, at @CPI_foundation we will be a learning partner to those seeking to #reimaginegovernment

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Sensemaking = creating space for listening, reflection & exploration of meaning beyond the usual boundaries. Read @_AdrianBrown's article to learn more about how @CPI_foundation are doing this

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Action-learning = an experimental, iterative mindset that embraces failure & recognises opportunities to adapt. Read @_AdrianBrown's article to learn more about how @CPI_foundation are doing this

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Just over a year ago the CPI team published our vision for better government. This vision was inspired by the growing movement of changemakers around the world who are pushing beyond the current debate about what government does in order to address the more fundamental questions of how government should be: the beliefs, values and principles that drive government action.

Since then, we’ve witnessed a growing recognition of the need to radically rethink many aspects of society, accelerated by the pandemic and accentuated by people-powered movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion that are rightly demanding fundamental change. Governments are particularly important in this narrative as they are both institutions in need of reform as well as powerful agents for societal change.

At CPI we’ve been reflecting on how we can best help to reimagine government in this context. We’ve spent time speaking with policymakers, public leaders, frontline workers and other changemakers to better understand their needs. We’ve reflected on our successes, failures, strengths and stories as an organisation. And we’ve explored what motivates us as individuals and the values that connect us.

Reflecting on all our work, we realised that we are at our best when we are learning alongside others who share our vision, helping them to listen, learn and adapt as they seek to reimagine government. We’ve called this role being a learning partner, where the learning is mutual. We believe that we can help government organisations seeking to explore new ways of working by supporting their learning journey. Equally, we fully expect to learn ourselves and to share that learning more widely so others can benefit.

Reflecting on all our work, we realised that we are at our best when we are learning alongside others who share our vision, helping them to listen, learn and adapt as they seek to reimagine government. We’ve called this role being a learning partner.

Sensemaking and action-learning

Within the learning partner role, we’ve found there are two complementary sets of practices that encourage different forms of learning and therefore surface different insights. We're calling these two sets of practices sensemaking and action-learning and in describing them we’ve drawn on the rich sets of literature and practice that already exist in relation to both.

  • 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. 

  • 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 and in doing so challenges traditional notions of accountability and hierarchy. 

We believe that sensemaking and action-learning are complementary and self-reinforcing. Without a strong sense of the nature of the challenge it is difficult to know which paths to explore. Sensemaking alone can appear conceptual or ethereal and disconnected from practical action. Action-learning without a strong sense of shared meaning can become technocratic and mechanical, reinforcing existing biases.

Both sensemaking and action-learning are required to understand and interact with the world in a holistic way, and both require an open, inquisitive and creative mindset and a willingness to look beyond existing boundaries and challenge existing assumptions. If practised with intention, they can help to strengthen trust and build bridges with historically marginalised groups, raising the voices of those seldom heard and challenging dominant, but partial, narratives.

Putting it into practice

As we’ve started to describe what it means to be a learning partner we’ve realised that this is a role some of the most progressive and forward-thinking governments are already exploring for themselves. For example, the Finnish National Agency for Education has been experimenting with acting as a learning partner to local municipalities. Rather than dictating best practice top-down they are instead supporting local innovation and learning involving government officials, school principals, teachers, parents and students.

And so, just as we aim to mirror the beliefs, values and principles of more effective government in our own organisation, we also aim to demonstrate, through our own practice, what the learning partner role could look like for government.

We have a rich reservoir of insights to draw upon from our existing portfolio of work. For example, our recent work in the UK has focused on how government could be listening more inclusively during the pandemic. And in the US, we’ve been exploring how governments can fail forward by challenging a culture of risk aversion and being more open about the lessons when things don’t go according to plan.

Many of our projects include aspects of both roles rather than purely being about one or the other - indeed our ability to successfully weave the two together is something we think is relatively unusual. The Human Learning Systems approach to public management pioneered by Toby Lowe and Collaborate CIC combines elements of both sensemaking and action-learning.

Just as we aim to mirror the beliefs, values and principles of more effective government in our own organisation, we also aim to demonstrate, through our own practice, what the learning partner role could look like for government.

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People around the world are demanding change. They are asking how we can reshape society so that it is more equitable, more sustainable and more supportive of human flourishing. There are no easy answers, and our old ways of working and thinking are unlikely to be sufficient. We need imagination and courage, and governments that are willing to embrace an open, learning mindset to drive systemic change.

We believe our vision for government is clear and powerful. Now, by better articulating our theory of change and our role as a learning partner, we hope we can pursue that vision more purposefully and explore how government can be reimagined in partnership with those who share our vision.

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We're on a mission to pursue our vision for government more purposefully and explore how government can be reimagined in partnership with those who share our vision, but we need your help!

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Written by:

Adrian Brown Executive Director of the Centre for Public Impact
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