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Human Learning Systems: the role of local authorities

Following the recent publication of Human Learning Systems: Public Service for the Real World – the latest instalment in a series of HLS resources – in this article we explore what HLS means for local government in conversation with Gary Wallace of Plymouth City Council, Lela Kogbara of Black Thrive and formerly Islington LBC and Ed Anderton of Redbridge LBC.

For decades we have been immersed in New Public Management (NPM) – managing public services in a way that views change as linear and something to be controlled based on ‘managers, markets and metrics’. But it is becoming increasingly clear that targets and competition often undermine and distract from what actually matters when it comes to supporting people and places.

Over the past few years, a growing movement of people and organisations across sectors have been exploring Human Learning Systems (HLS) as an alternative to NPM. It is a way of responding to the complexity of the real world through a more human, connected and adaptive approach.

HLS: an alternative approach to public management

Everyone working in public service will have at some point been frustrated with approaches that feel fragmented, wasteful and dehumanising. But imagining an alternative is incredibly challenging when NPM – whether we’re aware of it or not – pervades the mindsets, structures and processes of everything we do.

HLS is an alternative way of organising public service that is gathering momentum. As its starting point, HLS acknowledges that people’s lives are complex. To be effective, responses to social challenges need to work with (not seek to control) complex realities, and recognise that systems (not single organisations, services or projects) create outcomes. Key features of HLS include:

  • Making the process of creating change more human, putting decision-making into the hands of the people who know best – people and communities, and those who directly support them.
  • Changing the role of management to creating a learning culture rather than exercising control.
  • Supporting collaborative approaches across organisations and professions by nurturing a ‘healthy system’ based on trusting relationships, shared purpose and deep listening.

In many ways, HLS is an intuitive way of working. When the pandemic hit, in some cases the mechanisms of NPM were put to one side, and working in a more collaborative, trust-based and empathetic way was the obvious and necessary response.

The intuitive nature of HLS is why many people are drawn to it. Lela Kogbara is director of Black Thrive Global, a social enterprise that brings together individuals, local communities, statutory agencies and voluntary organisations to address the structural barriers that prevent black people from thriving. She was formerly assistant chief executive of Islington LBC, and has also held roles in national Government.

Lela talks powerfully about the aspects of HLS that hit home for her based on questions she has grappled with throughout her career. She emphasises the importance of putting residents at the heart of everything we do: ‘They are experts at the centre of their own system – but too often we hit the target but miss the point. There’s clear evidence that you can change outcomes by building a relationship with someone, by engaging as a human being.’ The focus of HLS on genuine learning resonates, with her. She points out that ‘evidence-based practice’ is not working in its current form because ‘there’s the absence of the human, of genuine learning. The pursuit of KPIs is crazy and can lead to things like school exclusions which aren’t a desirable outcome.’

She also finds the concept of healthy systems a helpful concept: ‘The reason why the system has not been working for black people – and disabled people and poor white people among others for decades – is because the system is not healthy. Equality of voice is difficult and something we need to really focus on – we all find it difficult to listen sometimes when people don’t express themselves in the way we’re used to as trained bureaucrats.’ There’s a clear role for local government helping make these shifts a reality, and one that will require significant changes in mindsets, relationships and structures.

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