Dawn Plimmer explores key ideas from the new Public Service for the Real World ebook about the potential of Human Learning Systems (HLS) in local places.

Asits starting point, HLS acknowledges that people’s lives are complex. Responses to social challenges need to work with complex realities and recognise that systems (not single organisations, services or projects) create outcomes.

However, engaging with and influencing others in the system is often incredibly challenging. Systems are beyond the control of any one organisation, and the mindsets and structures that shape our day-to-day work are overwhelmingly organisation rather than systems-focused.

This blog explores how to nurture collaborative systems approaches to enable and sustain HLS in local places. In situations of complexity, decisions are often best made locally — based on an understanding of the context of a place, and by putting decision-making into the hands of people and communities and those who directly support them.

Why place matters

To enable human approaches, we need to understand the range of factors that impact on an individual — to identify underlying challenges and uncover opportunities, assets and actors in a local place that can be part of developing solutions.

Enabling a “whole person” approach that is responsive to an individual’s particular context requires:

1. Local actors working together to understand, support and enable people in a connected, human way.

This requires practitioners working on the ground to have the autonomy to work in a relational way and provide support tailored to the specific context, working in partnership with the people and communities they are supporting. Support is joined up and draws on a range of resources and assets in a place.

Key features of these approaches include: drawing on local identity as a sense of purpose, understanding what matters in people’s lives through deep listening, mobilising communities through building agency and connection, and developing more connected strength-based support.

2. Purposefully creating a “healthy system” to enable this practice to thrive.

This is about creating the conditions for organisations to work together effectively in a human and context-led way as the norm. It includes sharing insight across a place to identify and address the patterns that impact multiple people, and develop collective responses.

Developing healthy systems

To enable a shift from standardised and siloed to human and context-led support requires fundamentally shifting how local systems work. While there is no one model or route to create a healthy system, the conditions below are important enablers.

  • Shared purpose and principles: partners in a place are aligned around a common purpose that cuts across and provides the motivation for their work.
  • Trusting relationships: people and organisations are connected and develop honest authentic relationships as a foundation for working together.
  • Collaborative behaviours: people across the system value collaboration, and work in a connected way.
  • Sharing power: actions are taken to address imbalances of power and gain diverse perspectives. Decisions are devolved as close to the ground as possible.
  • Systems infrastructure: processes and structures shift from an organisational to systems focus e.g. workforce, commissioning, governance and data.
  • Enabling leadership: leaders see their role as creating enabling conditions for collaborative approaches.
  • Learning and insight: a learning culture focused on experimentation, convening and collective sense-making as a driver of improvement and building trust.
  • Embedding and influencing: people and partners are motivated to improve, embed and influence for the adoption of these practices more widely.

The role of system stewardship

Developing the conditions for a healthy system requires purposeful work to optimise what local actors can achieve collectively. The existence of a System Stewardship function is a key enabler of this.

A Systems Steward is a person, organisation or group that takes responsibility for helping to create a healthy system. System Stewardship is not about traditional project delivery nor about “directing” others; instead it is about helping actors come together to understand the system and weave together their contributions to enable a focus on what people can achieve together that they can’t alone. This role often includes connecting support on the ground but, importantly, has a key focus on building the conditions for this practice to thrive in the long term.

Looking across examples of HLS in local places, a diverse range of different actors play a stewardship role. In some cases, it is those in positions of formal authority, for example, public service directors or commissioners. In other cases, change is being led by those who don’t occupy formal positions of power, and in fact, their lack of formal authority means they are better able to question and disrupt how things are done across the system (for example, local charities).

The key source of legitimacy that marks an organisation or individual’s ability to drive change is the ability to bridge the gap between the “old” world and the “new” — being trusted within the establishment (based on relationships, authenticity and credibility) as a foundation for introducing, testing and embedding HLS thinking and practice. This System Stewardship role — bridging between, weaving and connecting many different perspectives and actors — is crucial.

Read case studies of system stewardship at different geographic scales here:

Liverpool Combined Authority: enabling an HLS approach to homelessness assertive outreach services across the Liverpool City Region.

Surrey Youth Focus: bringing together organisations to understand the system and take collective action to make support work better for children and families.

Wallsend Children’s Community: building relationships and connecting local actors to develop the health of the system around the child and family.

Help On Your Doorstep: curating a multiagency network of services to support people to thrive and live in happy, healthy communities.

HLS and place — the next frontier

If we accept that in situations of complexity decisions are often best made by those with an understanding of local context, this has important implications for actors working at different geographical scales. The role of national and regional actors is to enable decision-making to happen close to the ground in a context-led way, and to facilitate the sharing of learning across places.

The role of local actors is to contribute to the development of “healthy local systems” that build on local insight and trusting relationships to enable human support and more community- and people-led approaches.

To realise the potential of HLS at a local level, priorities include:

  • Translating “human” and “learning” practices beyond single organisations to enable a connected systems response that mobilises the contribution of local people and assets in a place. As part of this, recognising the value of and resourcing System Stewardship is a key area for development.
  • Exploring opportunities to embed HLS across a place as a whole (beyond traditional service silos).

This is a summary of a chapter of the Human Learning Systems: Public Service for the Real World ebook. You can read the full chapter with practical examples here and the full ebook here. You can read more about the role of local authorities in enabling HLS in this blog.