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Case Study:

Keep it Local Principle 1: Think about the whole system not individual service silos

Published: 19 September 2022
10 minute read

Anna Randle

Dawn Plimmer

Dr Toby Lowe

Anna Randle is Chief Executive of Collaborate, the organisation which helps public services collaborate to tackle complex social challenges.Dawn Plimmer, Head of Practice at Collaborate.Dr Toby Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and Management at Northumbria Business School.

Across the country, people are beginning to think very differently about public services. At the heart of this is a growing recognition of the complex nature of social problems and the need to work as a whole system to address them.

The starting point in this journey varies from place to place. Some are developing new principles across a whole system, others are innovating in a part of the system to catalyse wider change. But it is clear that a new world is emerging which requires not just new practice, but a change in the way we think about how social change happens and a new language to enable it.

We are at a moment of real transition in public services. This is being driven by a range of factors – including austerity, rising demand, a growing recognition that stubborn inequalities remain despite years of investment and effort, and a growing understanding of systems thinking and complexity. As such, people who work in public services (from all sectors) are beginning to think differently about how we can create positive social change today.

Three big shifts in public services


A realisation that public services alone cannot solve complex problems. Instead, they need to be understood as part of a wider system which also has influence, including other local assets and sectors, communities and people themselves. The challenge then becomes to understand and work through the wider system, mobilising a range of assets and actors towards common causes.


A new understanding that place matters. The way that people experience things is affected by where they live, the community around them, and local players such as public services and also the third sector and private sector.


A recognition that we are not solving complex problems. Years of funding, commissioning and delivery underpinned by a New Public Management mindset have failed to help resolve complex challenges faced by our communities and citizens. Many people across the country – commissioners, providers, funders, within the public and third sector and beyond – are now confronting the limits of this approach. They are being brave enough to ask themselves how we can think and act differently in response to complex issues, working with complexity rather than despite it.

Different starting points for change

These shifts are playing out in a variety of ways in different places, and we are both observing and creating many different starting points for putting new thinking into practice.

Sometimes, as in the case of places such as Oldham, Wigan, Sutton, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and Barking and Dagenham, new principles for social change and public service reform are being developed at scale across whole places and systems.

These are often framed in new place-based plans: statements of intent developed collaboratively by multiple stakeholders, intended to set a direction of travel that articulates not just the key priorities for the place, but also the new ways of working that are going to enable progress.

Work can then be developed in different areas – health and social care integration, integrated neighbourhood services, new approaches to tackling domestic abuse and so on – that is consistent with these principles, and learning from these initiatives can inform the development of others.

In other places these shifts are being developed within one part of the system, as in Gateshead. Here a series of small-scale prototypes, which began with exploring the reasons why some residents were falling into council tax arrears, have been led by the Director of Public Service Reform. The challenge in places that are beginning work in one part of the system is to engage the wider system in a conversation about what the learning from this work is telling us about how the system needs to evolve.

This might be the roles and behaviours of frontline staff, the role and approach of commissioning, the culture of relevant organisations or the relationships between different parts of the system. In simple terms, these are examples of reform that is starting in one part of the system, and working outwards from there to change the system more widely.

We have learned that while the starting point may be different from place to place, it is important that people who want to change the system are prepared to go with the starting point for system change that the places and people are ready to use. However, we also think that it is important that we pay attention to what helps us move from small scale innovation towards wider system change. Innovation is a route to change, but only if we learn from it, and use that learning to inform further work.

"Community organisations tend to be flexible and responsive, and are often able to build the strong and trusting relationships with people that are necessary over the long term."


Commissioning for complexity

One key area of inquiry in the past two years has been ways in which commissioning can prove a fruitful entry point for local system change work. Collaborate, in close partnership with Dr Toby Lowe from Northumbria University, has been working for a couple of years with funders, commissioners and delivery organisations to understand what new approaches that are informed by complexity and systems thinking look like, and how we can nurture them further.

One of the most exciting things about this work has been that it has been informed by the people who are actually doing the work on the ground. So complexity theory lends an academic frame, as set out in our first report, A Whole New World. But the rich learning set out in our recently published second report, Exploring the New World, is about how people, places and organisations are putting this into practice and what they are learning along the way.

So what do we mean by complexity, and how do we know we are working in this kind of context? We think there are a number of characteristics we can look for:

  • There are a variety of strengths and needs, and these look different from a variety of perspectives
  • Outcomes are being produced by many factors interacting together in a dynamic way
  • People are working in systems that are beyond the control of any one of the actors in the system

Understanding that many of issues we care about function as complex systems, explains why “old world” thinking is not useful in this context. It explains why a “Whole New World” is needed – not just new tools, processes and practices, but a change in the way we think about how effective social change happens and what it takes to enable this.

We have learnt that working in complexity requires the following:

  • The capacity to respond to variety. Each person’s strengths and needs are different, and so standardised services don’t adequately meet these needs
  • The ability to adapt to change. The context in which social interventions are undertaken constantly changes, from micro–scale changes in personal circumstances to large scale social change. This means that the nature of the challenges and “what works” to meet those challenges is continually shifting. Social interventions must be able to continually adapt to reflect these changes.
  • The ability to shape systems whose behaviour can’t be reliably predicted, and which no one controls. This demands collaboration and influencing, rather than command and control.

When the world is complex, this is what is required of us.

It is interesting to note the level of interest there has been in this work from community organisations and the third sector. This is arguably because they are adept at displaying these behaviours. They tend to be flexible and responsive, and are often able to build the strong and trusting relationships with people that are necessary over the long term.

One opportunity for this sector this work represents is that public sector commissioners and managers are shifting their own thinking and practice in this direction, recognising the role of other sectors in the system and creating collaborative and equal spaces for reflection, learning and adaptation. This collaboration across sectors also offers a powerful potential route to wider change, creating the culture and behaviours cross the system, as well as the practice and infrastructure, that enables a move in a new direction.

"We have centred on how partners work differently to tackle the causes of ill health to enable the shift of resources into prevention, rather than continue the trajectory of increasing costs of specialist service


A new language for a new world

From listening to the people doing this work, we’ve evolved the language of “complexity–informed practice” into something that better describes how this new approach works. This is the language of Human Learning Systems. In a nutshell this means:

Being Human to one another: they recognise and respond to human variety with bespoke support, they build empathy between people, they recognise the strengths of others, and they seek to trust and be trusted.

Using Learning to enable performance improvement: they use a variety of both quantitative and qualitative data to learn; they create learning cultures; and they fund and commission for learning, not for the delivery of specified services.

Looking after the health of the Systems which create social outcomes: they create the conditions in which people can understand the systems of which they are part, and enable effective collaboration and co-ordination of actors within these systems.

It is fascinating to observe the level of interest there has been in this work from funders, commissioners and service delivery organisations across the country. We interpret this as a real signal of the moment of transition in public services we described earlier. Collaborate CIC is working with many places that are trying to bring about these changes with real ambition and often at scale, and we see others locally and nationally working towards similar aims. The work of Locality and the principles set out here are absolutely consistent with this thinking.

The movement for change is building. Those of us who are part of this movement must continue to find ways to share the learning from the pioneers and connect them to each other, as well as to support and push the practice in local areas as we step into – and build – the new world.

If you’d like to connect with others working in this, take a look at the online Community of Practice and resources