Learning and Improving in Complex Systems: Lessons from public service reforms

On 29th January 2020 we hosted the National Leadership Forum, bringing together 400 public service leaders for discussions about how we are Working Together; as a system. In the spirit of sharing the insights from the day, we have written blog posts describing the content of the discussions.

To address complex societal challenges, public services should both meet individual needs, and respond to systemic pressures. This requires leaders to adapt, and ensure they listen to their peers and the citizens they serve as part of the wider system. This was the message that emerged from a panel session at the National Leadership Forum, chaired by Professor Dame Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and NLC board member.

Dame Janet framed the discussion as follows: in an increasingly complex landscape, which public service reforms show us a path towards a learning, adaptive system? And what sort of leadership is required to enable such reforms?

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Dame Janet Beer, Sir John Manzoni and G.T. Bynum

Dame Janet was joined on the panel by:

Sir John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service, who spoke about civil service reforms, to date and into the future;

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Chief Fire Officer at the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service, who spoke about behaviour change in the most challenging of workplaces;

G.T Bynum, Mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who spoke about the collaborative use of data and evidence in driving reforms;

Kristina Murrin, CEO of the National Leadership Centre, who spoke about the emerging evidence around the leadership qualities needed in today’s public service ecosystem

Several themes emerged around bringing disparate agencies and viewpoints together, the appropriate use of data and technology, and the implications for leaders of working in a more collaborative, systems-oriented way.

Working as one team

All panellists emphasised the importance of working across organisational boundaries in multidisciplinary teams, which is why the Civil Service is moving towards cross-cutting professional functions. The panel and audience called for smarter devolution with greater coordination between local, regional and central government as well as wider public sector organisations, to learn from and scale effective local solutions.

Widening the perspective of teams featured heavily when transforming the operational behaviour of firefighters, and in pivoting a city’s priorities towards more evidence-based decisions. The panel set out clear benefits to such teamwork, from flattened hierarchies that reach better decisions, to including voices from communities that aren’t usually at the table.

Use data to tell powerful stories

A clear thread through the session was the use of data and evidence. GT’s Urban Data Pioneer programme brings together analysts from across City Hall, and dozens from beyond, to embed the use of data into its decision-making fabric. Tulsa now uses data to prioritise street repairs according to likely return on investment, and to predict people at risk of eviction via delinquency on utility bill payments.

Sabrina’s innovative use of behavioural psychology to prevent injuries to firefighters is also based on experimental evidence. And Sir John emphasised the importance of having accurate data, and ensuring it flows between agencies. But the panel and audience also discussed the value of telling human stories with that data through personal testimony and lived experience, and tying analysis to advocacy for a shared vision. The speakers concluded that the use of data shouldn’t be seen as checking up on public servants or citizens, nor as a way to automate human decisions — but as a way to support the more targeted delivery of services that wrap around citizens’ needs.

Kristina Murrin joined the panel to talk about Civil Service Reform

Leadership that listens and empowers

So what sorts of leadership do we need in times of change? Kris explored some of the emerging trends in leadership research, which seem to suggest that the most effective leaders are:

● Connected — with wide, varied networks across the system;

● Adaptive — able to modify their approaches when circumstances change

● Questioning — curious to try new things and learn from both success and failure

● Purposeful — able to clearly articulate challenges, and a clear vision to address them; and

● Ethical — with a clear moral framework for themselves, and how their teams operate.

Dame Janet and her fellow panelists emphasised the importance of listening to those with the most knowledge, whether in seeking out the ‘Elvis’ who is the superstar innovator in an organisation, or the groups of workers whose informal chats reveal how a multinational corporation truly works.

The future of leadership in complex systems

In summing up, the panelists converged on their hopes for the future of public service leadership in the face of complex challenges. They envisage leadership that empowers, breaks down barriers, listens to the wider system, and creates inclusive cultures. Facing the uncertainty of future challenges, Dame Janet and her fellow panelists agreed that this will require leaders to be more self-aware, empathic, willing to take risks, and to learn from both success and failure.

It is the NLC’s mission to support leaders in co-creating this new era of public service leadership. Beyond the examples described here, where else can we learn from, which voices do we need to listen to more? Do comment below or send us your thoughts via Twitter, LinkedIn or email.

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The NLC will become part of the new Leadership College for Government in April. Read more here.