Government must be optimised for learning if it is to level-up the UK
We are finally entering a new phase in government, whereby learning and adapting trumps top-down control, writes Nadine Smith and Laura Seebohm. | PA Images
We propose three recommendations for Whitehall: prioritise learning, trust those who have the relationships to know what needs to happen next, and learn to listen again.
This week while the news of another national lockdown sinks in and the calls for more clarity on the future become louder, you may be feeling low on optimism. It feels as if this conversation about what next, how to level up and how to recover starts and stops. Everyone is waiting for the answers to emerge from Whitehall, be it money, more devolution, or a new ideas paper. But we are looking the wrong way if we want the right answers for our communities.
If we have learned anything so far in this global pandemic, it is that our government, like all governments, is on a steep learning curve. Key to this pandemic has been understanding that life today is complex, unpredictable and that we are learning as we go. Yet so many feel uncomfortable with a national or local learn and adapt approach, seeing a change of mind as ‘yet another U-Turn’, a sign of confusion, panic and failure.
Here’s another way of looking at it. It might just be we are finally entering a new phase in government, whereby learning and adapting trumps top-down control. A departure from New Public Management to human governments that listen, learn and adapt.
As we navigate between these two worlds of how we used to do things and how we should now, many are feeling naturally worried. If government isn’t in control, then who is? What is the point of learning if tomorrow we have to re-learn all over again? These are anxiety-inducing and unhelpful questions.
The good news is that this new era could, in fact, mark the start of a more enabling system where people trust one another to come up with answers. We have learned that many don’t like to be told what to do, even when it comes to life and death - trust right now is low.
Now is the right time for communities and places to contribute to co-creating a vision for all of Britain, especially those whose lives and livelihoods depend on Britain levelling up. They have told us so.
When you listen...you create an environment of learning and trust, instead of assumption or blame
In a recent listening project across the North of England, we listened deeply to people, many unhelpfully labelled as ‘hard to reach’ in the middle of the last national lockdown. Some of these people were recovering from addiction, in the criminal justice system and women selling sex.
These are the groups government assume need intervention, plans and strategies. Yet many showed us that when you listen deeply, you don’t just find the next thing to do, you create bonds, better feedback loops across systems, and strengthened relationships that can guide more bespoke action. Importantly, you create an environment of learning and trust, instead of assumption or blame.
We also learned that people don’t necessarily need anything at all from public services - isn’t that a revelation?
What emerged was a wish for people to be enabled and trusted to understand what others need, in spaces that can grow into groups of collaborating citizens. Unwanted knocks on the door from any public sector worker bred suspicion and damaged trust, unclear central government messages alienated and felt unrelatable to many.
So while rules may be necessary to save lives and protect the NHS, one rule could also be - let’s enable people to shape what comes next and co-create a vision that is realistic, relatable but adaptable too.
Being an enabling government is a hard message to deliver when leaders so often want to deliver a list of recommendations, but many countries worldwide are embarking on a new enabling and learning approach.
We propose just three recommendations for Whitehall. Prioritise learning, trust those who have the relationships to know what needs to happen next, and learn to listen again, as we have been doing at the Centre for Public Impact and Changing Lives.
Creating an environment for good things to emerge comes from learning. Why not make this the culture of the new Civil Service? With so little known about the future, why would we not optimise government for learning?
The days of being in control are over and people, when listened to, are feeling optimistic about that.
Nadine Smith is the UK director of Centre for Public Impact and Laura Seebohm is executive director of Changing Lives.
Join the Centre for Public Impact and Changing Lives on 17 November at 9am GST for a workshop on the importance of deep listening in government. In this session, we will explore, with government and charity leaders, how learning and deep listening exercises have been at the heart of their response, as well as how they have transformed what they heard into action.