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.

Embracing HLS: the role of local government

The role of local authorities as service deliverers, commissioners and shapers of place becomes more important than ever when acknowledging the complexity of people and place, and the resulting need for decisions to be taken as close to the ground as possible.

Taking a human approach that is responsive to an individual’s particular context requires local actors working together to understand, support and enable people in a connected and holistic way, and also purposefully nurturing a ‘healthy system’ to enable this practice to thrive.

In HLS we call this act of taking responsibility for helping to create a healthy system ‘systems stewardship’. It involves building trust and relationships, deep listening and learning, and helping people work better together towards common goals. Who is best placed to act as systems steward differs depending on context, and one of the key judgements for local authorities is when to step into a stewardship role, and when to step back to create space for other actors with legitimacy. Commissioners should consider resourcing stewardship activity as an essential complement to and enabler of human, connected support.

The journey of Plymouth City Council, one of the key pioneers that contributed to the development and naming of an HLS, demonstrates what the systems stewardship role looks like in practice. Gary Wallace (public health consultant) explains their starting point: ‘We decided to listen to what people were telling us and respond in a collective way. We were not trying to solve problems in a linear way. We were listening to lived experience, understanding the whole panoply of things that create value for people. Through the experience of doing this, everyone realised it was a much more sensible, human way of working.’

Plymouth’s approach, based on deep listening, is about fundamentally rethinking purpose rather than defaulting to what has always been done. Gary explains how the council has taken on a stewardship role that recognises that the organisation can’t do everything and so encourages partners to step in and work together to make Plymouth the best place it can be, including conceptualising problems and a future vision together.

There were certain enabling conditions in Plymouth that made this work possible. This included the integration of health and local authority budgets, and the permissive environment created by senior leaders and politicians who recognised that dominant approaches were not working and something radically new was needed. There was a willingness to experiment without predefined outcomes, with senior leaders holding the tension.

Many people ask how to adopt the ‘Plymouth model’. But as with HLS practice in general, it is context and people-led. There is no one model or toolkit to follow. But the core practices — focusing on listening, experimentation, collaboration, shifting power to residents, giving staff more autonomy — are all things that other places can adopt.

Redbridge LBC is one of a number of local authorities embarking on their own HLS journey. Ed Anderton recently joined the council as learning and evaluation lead for community hubs. The community hubs approach has drawn on HLS as a starting point — because of its alignment to the collaborative, community-led and empowered approach which is central to the hubs programme.

As is always the case when it comes to HLS, some people instinctively get it and want to be involved, others are curious but a bit hesitant, and some are resistant because they perceive HLS as a threat to their professional identity or cannot yet comprehend that an alternative is possible. Ed explains what this looks like for Redbridge’s emerging community hubs: ‘We’re currently working with the people who are most inclined to move towards us. For others, it will take longer to see that this is something they can fully step into. For example, we don’t have a predetermined plan for each of the community hubs, so that we can meaningfully engage with people and shape this together. We’re getting some requests for specific details and decisions at a point where we need to experiment, test and learn, and we need to give enough time and space to have those conversations. Our aim is to show that we can do it, model what it can look like, and bring others along.’

What can you do?

There is a clear and important role for local government in nurturing HLS as a route to improving outcomes for people and place, but it can be hard to know where to start when trying to work against an orthodoxy that has permeated our lives for decades. The overwhelming message from everyone who has adopted HLS practice is to start somewhere.

Tips from Gary Wallace of Plymouth City Council, Lela Kogbara of Black Thrive and Ed Anderton of Redbridge LBC include:

  • Start small, work with the willing, share stories, listen and build confidence that people’s views will be heard and acted on.
  • Seek opportunities to focus on what people in local communities value and are capable of as the foundation for a new and more productive relationship.
  • For senior leaders who want to develop the learning culture required to enable more human, connected approaches, consider: if a staff member had a brilliant idea to improve your service, how would you know?
  • Connect with peers for ‘collective bravery’. Working with allies from within your place and beyond can help you hold your nerve, provide inspiration, and build the momentum for change.

As we end our conversation, Gary Wallace sums up the journey ahead as a growing network of places embark on an HLS journey: ‘It’s exciting, it’s energising…’

Get involved

You can find out more about Human Learning Systems and access the new ebook here

Sign up to become part of the growing HLS Community at

Dawn Plimmer is senior head of practice at Collaborate CIC [email protected]