Responding to Complexity in Public Services

Responding to Complexity in Public Services


Responding to Complexity in Public Services


A paper in Public Money & Management discusses the merits of the emerging ‘Human Learning Systems’ (HLS) approach to the funding, commissioning and management of public services. The Human Learning Systems offers a framework which bridges academic complexity theory and the diverse contexts of public practice.

This is in response to public management approaches based on principles of marketisation. These are being seen to fail when faced with the complex world of public services.

The challenge

The public sector is challenged to achieve goals that are interconnected, ambiguous and wicked. This is in an environment where complexity is as an inherent feature of modern governance.

Complexity creates several challenges for the public sector. A range of approaches have been developed to address these challenges including the Vanguard method and the Cynefin framework.

A conversation has been taking place among policymakers and service professionals on developing an approach to public management which is compatible with the complex realities of contemporary public and non-profit management. This has led to the HLS approach.

HLS takes a holistic approach to funding, managing and commissioning in the context of complexity. It is informed:

  • deductively by complexity-informed academic scholarship
  • inductively through the practice and experimentation of over 300 organisations across the UK and beyond.

The HLS approach to public services

As its starting point, HLS takes the view that the purpose of public service is to help improve service outcomes. With HLS, the outcomes public service organisations are commissioned to deliver are not independently produced by those designing interventions or services. Instead they are informed by the systems in which they are embedded.

This complexity challenge can be structured across multiple levels:

  • Experiential complexity: from the variation in how outcomes are experienced by individuals, and the multiple pathways to shared outcomes across the population.
  • Compositional complexity: from the interdependence among causal factors leading to the creation of outcomes.
  • Dynamic complexity: from the co-evolution of interacting factors and the instability inherent to complex systems.
  • Governance complexity: from the autonomy of public service organisations and other actors, and the fragmentation of modern public service landscape.

Read more

Responding to Complexity in Public Services, ANZSOG, 2020