A Whole New World: Public Service in the time of Coronavirus


Responding to Coronavirus is causing public servants to turn off the target-based tools of public management that have been standard practice for the last 30 years. How can public managers explore how to manage differently, in a way which helps them to navigate the complex, dynamic, uncertain world we find ourselves in? We offer some practical ideas which may be able to help with this exploration, drawn from the action-research on Human Learning Systems that public and voluntary sector leaders have been undertaking for the last three years.

It’s a whole new world for public service

Coronavirus is creating a huge number of radical challenges for “public servants” from all sectors. How will we care for people when our workforce is sick or isolated? How will people reliant on gig economy jobs put food on the table? These and other incredible challenges are creating a whole new world for public servants to work within.

Today we are seeing the true value of public services and the people who power them. And yet we are also seeing the challenges and limitations of the way we normally manage, commission and deliver public services too. We know that the immediate challenge has been to mobilise a response to the current crisis. However, we think there are some ideas emerging from new practice that has been developing across the country that could be helpful in how public services respond over the coming months.

How is the world of public service changing?

One of the key changes that we are already beginning to see is that the targets and performance measures which framed people’s work previously are being turned off. In the past week alone:

  • Over 100 charitable foundations in the UK have signed a declaration offering funding “flexibility” by suspending all the performance targets and other ‘milestones’ on any existing funding agreements
  • NHS England has turned off all the financial targets for the NHS for the year
  • The CQC and Ofsted have suspended their inspection regimes
  • The Department for Transport has suspended rail franchises

Essentially, what is starting to happen is that people are turning off the instruments of New Public Management (NPM). They are turning off targets, and the quasi-markets that NPM introduces, because they’re not helpful in focussing public service work in complex, uncertain times.

But this creates another challenge for public service leaders. If we’re not using targets to understand and get better at what we do, what shall we do instead? (Because, imperfect as they are, these were our feedback loops to understand performance). So, what is the alternative?

Essentially, the fundamental question is: what does public management look like in a complex environment, an environment which is unpredictable, rapidly changing, and which no single actor controls?

Doing public service differently: Human Learning Systems

Public servants across the world are starting to explore alternative ways to do public management. We may be able to help with these explorations, because public and voluntary sector organisations in the UK, together with researchers from Newcastle Business SchoolCollaborate, and other organisations in an emerging collaborative, have been exploring this complex territory together for the last few years.

We think these explorations of complex landscapes might be useful in helping public managers to navigate the new world of Coronavirus times. We have captured the previous explorations, and put them in a guidebook which could help identify some of the landmarks that people might encounter. The basic framework that describes what people have found is called Human Learning Systems.

The key elements are:

Allowing public servants to be Human — focussing the attention of public servants on building relationships with those they serve — to understand their strengths and needs, and respond appropriately to whatever those are. This means liberating public servants (and those they serve) from attempts to control their work from above, and instead focusses on building trust at all levels.

Creating continuous Learning — in situations of uncertainty, we do not know what the ‘right’ thing to do is. There is no manual to operate from. So everyone must learn, as they go. It is the job of managers to create emergent learning environments and practices.

Nurturing healthy Systems — Healthy systems are ones in which different actors are able to co-ordinate and collaborate effectively. And healthy systems produce good outcomes. They are characterised by trust, openness and honesty. It the job of leaders (at all levels) to create and nurture healthy systems. It is the quality of relationships in the system that enables those systems to respond effectively in a crisis. If you have been investing in your relationships previously, you will now be reaping a dividend — in terms of rapid response and information sharing. If you haven’t previously invested in building relationships between actors in the system, now is a great time to start.

Practical ideas to start an exploration into managing differently

If you’re looking to explore how to manage differently in response to the current crisis, here are some things you can do right now to begin your explorations:

Being Human:

  • Give teams/organisations autonomy to respond to the strengths and needs of the people they serve. Identify together the purpose and principles that will guide their decision-making. Talk to them about the limits of that autonomy; work through scenarios of the situations in which people have full autonomy, and those which require checking in with others.
  • Identify budgets that people/teams/organisations can use without hierarchical sign-off. Create appropriate recording mechanisms for their use, so that spending decisions can be reflected on, and scrutinised later.
  • Turn off all the targets and KPIs which are no longer relevant (and make this explicit to people and organisations).

Creating Learning Environments:

  • Agree personal and shared measures and other forms of data capture with your teams — what is it important that we record, so that we can collectively learn?
  • Create a rapid learning environment. In exchange for the autonomy and budget discretion above, ask people to write their own learning logs/journals: what have I learnt today? What patterns have I seen? Use “observers” to capture and record novel practice.
  • Create peer reflection sessions where teams reflect together on a weekly basis. What did we do? What happened? What does this mean? Use the data collected to inform these conversations. Record what you learn, and share it with others — within and outside your organisation.
  • Create Learning Communities — or other environments where it is ok to talk about mistakes and uncertainty. Everyone will be feeling uncertain. Everyone will be making mistakes. Reassure people that this is normal.

Nurturing Healthy Systems

  • Connect with others in the system, and enable others to connect too. Reach out beyond your organisational boundaries at all levels and give permission to people to work differently. Map systems from the perspective of those being served so that all people/organisations are aware of the other actors in those systems.
  • Enable all the people in those systems to see one another as human beings, not just representatives of organisations, and appreciate the different perspectives of all of those people. Ask how you can help, and what others need, as well as share your own needs
  • Ensure that information can be shared easily across actors in relevant systems. What information do different actors need? How can all the people find the information they need?

The key point here is that there is no manual to tell you how to do this. Each organisation (and the systems of which they are part) must undertake their own action inquiry to learn how to manage differently. So, the role of leaders is to create an environment in which everybody learns. The current situation we face is incredibly challenging, but it is also a rich opportunity for learning and adaptation, which could accelerate changes in culture and practice in public services and government for the long term.

And you don’t have to start this inquiry from scratch — the work that others have done and shared about the Human Learning Systems approach may be useful in finding where to start, and some methods by which you can govern this work.

Further information about the Human Learning Systems approach:

Here is the outline of key thinking and practice, including case study examples

Here is a video presentation of the key elements of the Human Learning Systems approach

Here are leaders from Gateshead (Bespoke Public Service) and Plymouth (Whole Systems for Whole People) Councils, describing their Human Learning Systems work in detail

If you need help with your exploration:

Here is a forum where over 350 other public service leaders are talking about the HLS approach. It also contains a Resource Library with access to key documents (for example, the specification Plymouth Council used for their commissioning approach — commissioning without targets or KPIs)

Collaborate CIC can provide bespoke support to help your organisation to begin these explorations.

If you would like to find out more, please contact Anna Randle or Dawn Plimmer.


Adrian Brown — Executive Director, Centre for Public Impact

Andy Brogan — Partner, Easier Inc

Anna Randle — Chief Executive, Collaborate CIC

Toby Lowe — Newcastle Business School