2017 – 2023

Building a movement for more relational, joined up and adaptable services and support

The Backdrop

Our lives are complex. We are complex individuals, living in many different communities and contexts, dealing with varied challenges – which are particular to us and yet may also be universal – and find ourselves trying to navigate our way around often impersonal and disconnected systems when we need help and support. We want to change these systems. 

We reject the dominant approach to managing public service – known as New Public Management (NPM) – which reduces complex human needs and relationships to standardised, siloed services and narrow performance indicators, in order to try to simplify these complexities. While NPM initially emerged in the public sector, it has increasingly influenced how civil society is funded and commissioned, and in turn, how it works. 
Everyone working in civil society and the public sector will have at some point been frustrated with approaches that feel fragmented, wasteful and dehumanising. We hear time and again that it doesn’t work, and yet there has been no alternative. Imagining an alternative is incredibly challenging when NPM — whether we’re aware of it or not — shapes how we think and work. Human Learning Systems or HLS, is our proposal for that alternative.

What we did

Through a collaborative action research process, working alongside Dr Toby Lowe at Newcastle University and funded by a number of charitable trusts, and by our own investment, we co-developed Human Learning Systems, an alternative approach to funding, commissioning and managing public service in complexity. 

Action research and publications

In 2017, with Dr Toby Lowe and colleagues at Newcastle Business School, we interviewed funders and commissioners to understand how they were responding to complexity. This became our first report: A Whole New World

In 2018, again with Dr Toby Lowe, we held workshops with over 500 practitioners within public service and civil society, to understand how they are responding to complexity. This became our second collaborative report: Exploring the New World, which introduced the language, principles and practice of Human Learning Systems for the first time. 

We described how you can:

  • Make help and support more human, trusting the people who know best — people and communities, and those who directly support them, to make decisions.
  • Change the role of management to focus on creating a learning culture for improvement and accountability, rather than on monitoring targets, and
  • Support collaborative approaches across organisations and services by stewarding a ‘healthy system’ based on trusting relationships, shared purpose and deep listening. 

Developing a Human Learning Systems movement

In 2020 we helped form the Human Learning Systems Collaborative, bringing together 20 partners to develop a movement for change. The Collaborative researched 40 case studies and in 2021 published the first guide to Human Learning Systems in practice: Public Service for the Real World

In 2021, we began to further develop the Human Learning Systems movement and ‘learning infrastructure’, helping people develop their confidence and capacity to take a Human Learning Systems approach. We produced regular newsletters. We supported learning communities for local authorities, for social pedagogy practitioners, for the curious, and for system stewards in civil society. We brought together 400+ people for HLS Week 2022 across 25 events, exploring and sharing Human Learning Systems practice and its potential with 50 practitioners sharing their experiences. The breadth of topics demonstrated how far HLS has come. 

Impact and Learning

We have learned that Human Learning Systems (HLS) must never be prescriptive. There is a framework and set of principles that need to be adapted to context and purpose. HLS places experimentation and adaptation at the heart of complex decision-making, prioritises relational approaches to help and support, and promotes collaboration and breaking down of silos. Adopting Human Learning Systems for the design, commissioning and management of services and support looks different in every place and situation. There is no detailed ‘how-to’ manual for HLS. It has to be designed and adapted as you go.

We have also heard that it can be really hard to take a different approach when the dominant paradigm is so strong. It takes courage and resilience to adapt a Human Learning Systems approach within an existing institutional culture. We know from early adopters that peer support and legitimacy is vital. That’s why we have been running peer-to-peer learning communities, to help overcome dominant cultures and create bravery for HLS. They provide peer wisdom, solidarity and a place to explore challenges. They provide a safe space away from day-to-day pressures and cultures to reflect, share practice and explore routes to change. They are a good way to grow HLS competencies – given there is no set methodology or training curriculum.

Peer learning communities work best when there is intentional design and facilitation, continuity of membership with some common purpose and shared understanding of the principles of HLS, and when people bring their own practice challenges to explore. 

Participating in the HLS learning community, coordinated by colleagues at Collaborate CIC, has also allowed me to connect and share with fellow travellers from across a wide range of local authorities, all keen to learn from and support each other. It’s been a highly encouraging, energising and inspiring experience.

Ed Anderton, Redbridge Council