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Transforming public services through the Human Learning Systems approach

Researchers at Newcastle Business School are transforming public services through an alternative management approach, entitled ‘Human Learning Systems’. When implemented, this human-centred, learning-emphasised approach has a profound effect on the delivery of public services, improving the lives and prospects of service employees and the clients that they support.  

Over the last 30 years, management of the public and voluntary sector has centred on the commissioning of services through contracts that set targets and measure service performance in a way that often encourages perverse incentives and target manipulation. Since 2018, Dr Toby Lowe, Dr Hannah Hesselgreaves, Professor Rob Wilson, Dr Max French, Melissa Hawkins, and their colleagues within the Complexity and Learning Group at the Northumbria University’s Newcastle Business School, have supported organisations to develop an alternative way of reforming service delivery and management: the Human Learning Systems (HLS) approach. 

The HLS – ‘Be Human, Learn Together. Change the System’ – framework is based on three key principles:  

  1. Service delivery should be more human-centred, building on the internal motivations of those involved. A particularly important aspect of this is positive relationships with people using the services.  
  2. Delivering a service involves a continuous process of learning and adaptation to meet the needs of people using the service instead of using standard ‘targets’ and tick boxes. For this to work, organisations need to improve dialogue and fund learning rather than the services themselves.  
  3. To be successful, these important values and behaviours need to be incorporated into the system as an ongoing process as opposed to the usual approach where change is siloed in single projects or organisations. 

The Northumbria team have worked closely with many organisations to help them adopt an HLS approach in their management strategies. This includes Collaborative Newcastle – a partnership between Newcastle Council, Newcastle-Gateshead Clinical Commissioning Group and Cumbria, Northumberland, and Tyne & Wear Mental Health Trust that annually provides services to more than 1.5 million NHS patients – and Plymouth and Gateshead Councils. Case Studies of other organisations that have worked with Northumbria to adopt HLS can be found on the HLS website

For Plymouth Council, adopting an HLS approach created more efficient and cost-effective ways of working. Examples include decreased waiting times for drug and alcohol treatment programmes and initiatives that have halved the number of families in temporary bed and breakfast accommodation. New prototypes for public services at Gateshead Council, designed in collaboration with Dr Toby Lowe, particularly emphasise the human and relationship aspects of HLS. These have had a positive effect on people: improved employment rates, reduced levels of debt and reduced interventions by the care system, meaning less children going into care. These are just some of the ways that adoption of HLS management principles is making a material difference to local people’s lives.  

The next step in the Human Learning Systems work is the launch of the next report that represents the next phase of co-production between the partners, including the Centre for Public Impact, Collaborate CIC, IVAR and Easier Inc. The report uses over 40 international case studies to describe how HLS is being practiced and explain what this means for public management. The Northumbria team are continuing to work on an academic base, developing action research work with organisations who are keen to explore learning as an organisational strategy. There are two recent articles exploring the relationship between “HLS and complexity” and the “Learning Partner” role as aspects of working in this new way. A book bringing the academic work together is also in development with Policy Press and is due for publication in 2022. 

Further information can be found on the HLS Collaborative website.

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