An alternative paradigm for public management with impact

By Melissa Coade

April 28, 2022

Dale Starr encourages anyone with skills in communication to consider working in that area.
Public servants’ output and attention are skewed toward focussing on meaningless metrics. (JonoErasmus/Adobe)

A new theory called human learning systems, which approaches policy and program development from a continuous learning approach, has been developed to show how public servants can best help create outcomes for real life. 

Presenting a keynote address at the BiiG Conference in Brisbane this week, UK-based professor Toby Lowe from the Centre for Public Impact showed a diagram symbolising the typical process map for public management. It was a mangled knot of connections and complicated, circuitous paths to draw together the work of many disparate groups. 

“What this shows us is that outcomes are not delivered by organisations [in government],” Lowe said, noting a delivery mindset was an unhelpful way to achieve real-world change.  

“If we want to achieve real outcomes, we need to do public management very differently,” he added.

All current research evidence shows contracting and performance-managing outcomes that hold bureaucrats accountable for things they cannot control leads to people pouring their efforts into what they feel they can control, Lowe argued. And this dynamic tends to skew public servants’ output and attention to disproportionately focus on what can be meaningless metrics (in the form of production data). 

The result is always a less effective and more costly way to manage public services, Lowe said. 

“If we know how an outcome is created, the job of public management is to enable that. If government wants to help people to create real outcomes, what should you do?,” Lowe asked.

“[A human learning systems approach] is the direct interaction between the public servant and the person they’re serving framed as the lens. 

“This means that public service can produce a bespoke response to the unique nature of each person’s life as a complex system, undertaking the experiments and explorations that enable that unique logic to produce the desirable outcomes.”

Delivering real outcomes requires working in the complex reality where public management problems existed, Lowe said. From a process map perspective, he said outcomes should be influenced by factors rather than actors. This was a form of bespoke public service, similar to co-design, which offered proven, better outcomes for citizens and end-users. 

“Let’s take this idea of learning as management strategy. Let’s frame the work of a frontline [public servant] as a learning cycle [looking at each person],” Lowe said.

“Together, we build up a picture of your life as a complex system. Once we have an understanding of that, we can begin to design experiments together to see whether we can get your life to produce results that are different.”


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