What if we developed organisational ecologists in the UK Civil Service? — Part One
Looking at organisations through a different lens
This is the first post in a two part series where I’m trying to understand how ecology might be used as an approach for change work in government. This first post is about my reflections of seeking to cultivate change in the UK Civil Service and the narratives that surround it.
Hello, dear reader,
These blog posts have taken a long time to write. Finding the words for them has been difficult. What I am trying to say feels as if it is at the edge of what our language can do, where it is for things we have been able to intuit but not name.
So, I’m going to share where I’ve been thinking about and see where we get to, together.
Connecting between present actions and future outcomes
Since co-authoring a blog post series on change work in government with DavidBuck and Clare Moran, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of public service, reimagining what it will look like and how people will experience it. About what it takes to make difficult and meaningful things happen. Why it’s hard, exhausting, and incredibly rewarding to make progress. What kinds of values, behaviours, qualities, skills, and practices can help catalyse evolutionary change in the UK Civil Service (or anywhere else). With a real lack of clarity of what is to come, the future is both unknown and full of possibility.
The UK Civil Service is a highly relational environment — it is where new friendships happen, where existing relationships deepen, where professional opportunities occur, and where we learn new things about ourselves. But, despite people’s best efforts, we still seem far away from a relational model of public service, where we place the initiative with people and those delivering the services, and sensible, adaptive public policy. Where this exists in public service, for example on farming reforms, it is a tiny proportion of what happens in government. Progress here is being made despite the system, not because of the system.
It seems like it’s rare for deep knowledge or expertise in a particular area to be encouraged and valued in the UK Civil Service. Often this is met with complete bemusement, indifference, or actively discouraged. I don’t know why that is, given how much power, possibility, and magic making there is in relational work in public service, those practising more systemic ways of doing and being. They show us glimpses of what happens when we change what we do, rather than just the shape of our organisations.
The UK Civil Service values intellect, ingenuity in solving tricky problems, the pragmatism and deftness “to turn on a dime,” and the ability to manage people competently. These are all necessary qualities, and it would undermine our ability to enable governments to deliver on their aspirations if you don’t see these qualities in clear abundance. But I don’t think that’s sufficient if you want to respond to 21st century challenges. By sticking to all these qualities all the time, it is the surest and safest thing to keep the plates spinning, but it is the furthest possible thing away from doing the real, messy, challenging change work in government.
Navigating complex change is both very hard and very important. And I don’t think you can transform organisations without a healthy amount of doing things differently. We also need boldness, openness, humility, and the bravery to make uncomfortable decisions, fast.
For that, we must also value the qualities from other disciplines such as ecology, sociology, anthropology, ethnography, systems thinking, linguistics, and human geography — these are the curators, systems convenors, network weavers, and much more. We need many more of these people in public service, who often sit across a few disciples and build shared languages and spot patterns that others don’t. It still amazes me how undervalued they are.
History casts a long shadow
Often the UK Civil Service can feel distant, confusing, and obtuse to those that interact with it (in any capacity). Because the UK Civil Service is not really a singular ‘thing.’ It is a collection of diverse organisations with differing cultures, priorities, and processes that have developed over time and govern each one. It has structural complexity, coupled with complexity of problems and people, which makes the design of organisational structures for people to work within challenging, let alone any changes to how we work within them.
From the inside, the history of how things have developed over time is of importance to understanding the behaviours of the system (for example, see the sanctity of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms). The new is unavoidably in relationship with the old, and the actions and decisions of the past inform and constrain our present and future. If we are to get to where we might want to go, we must understand where we are starting from. So, how can we generate a nuanced conversation about how we organise ourselves to achieve big things, like social justice, without dismissing everything that has come before?
You see, the trajectory of a complex system depends on the path it has followed to that moment. The shape of this path, however, is never predetermined. It’s influenced by:
- history and narratives — the study of people, actions, decisions, interactions and behaviours;
- path dependence — the notion that present actions taken at an earlier point in time can set in motion developments that can affect future outcomes, i.e. what has occurred in the past persists, even if not visible on the surface; and,
- initial conditions — which are specific contextual conditions (i.e. organisational structure) at the time of founding imprint upon organisational processes at later stages and, eventually, amount to a replicated pattern.
The shape of this path may illustrate how differently people have thought about and related to the world around them, opening up spaces of critical and imaginative possibility for our own times. ‘The single-tier pension: a simple foundation for saving’ is a recent example of history-conscious, transformative policy of state pension reform.
There is no simple, easy, revolutionary route here. We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. We face a multitude of complex challenges — climate change, systemic inequalities, pandemics — that require us to embrace the complexity and ambiguity in our work in government. Whilst the nature of some of the challenges we face is known, it is how we respond to them differently to before that is unknown.
We need a different approach to change — and it is New Local’s ‘A Community-Powered NHS’ report, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s ‘New Frontiers in Funding, Philanthropy and Investment’, and others that are paving a way forward. It is within this context that we must attend to the health of our organisations and the relationships between communities and partners. First we shape our organisations, then our organisations shape us.
Framing our thinking in terms of narratives
Language is the process by which things and concepts acquire meaning. It helps us to weave stories about relationships, organisations, and communities, building bridges across differences. This shapes how we understand, interact with, and perpetuate complex systems around us.
But our use of language has limitations, both in form and expression. What we see in front of us is shaped by the language we use. As we cannot know or comprehend complex systems in its totality, because they are dynamic, messy, and ambiguous, we attempt to make use of the language we already have. We use metaphors and abstractions to muddle through. The difficulty here is that things and concepts acquire meaning differently, in real time, depending on who (or what) is interacting with or relating to them.
I like to imagine the complex social networks in the UK Civil Service — where individuals and groups are connected to others — are filled with different people who thrive in different niches. Some thrive in networks, others focus on deep relationships with a few others, and some support the relational world around them. And rather than viewing these linearly — in line with conventional management discourse about organisations — we may instead view them ecologically. One of the things this gives us is interdependence, a key concept for understanding complex systems, especially living ones.
Presently, it is the prevalence of the languages of science and engineering that shapes what we see. In attempting to define how things work in a system, these languages tend to lose the essence of interdependence, the ecological aspect that all things are connected. Though the disciplines of science and engineering themselves have much to offer, using metaphors from these fields are not always conducive to supporting the mindsets needed to embrace complexity and systems practice because of the way they direct and constrain our thinking.
This is where we can turn to new languages i.e. ecoliteracy, or return to ancient or indigenous languages, knowledge, and wisdom, as more interactive forms of expression to help us make some sense of the complex systems (and our experiences of them). What these wisdom traditions all point to is our deep interrelatedness with each other and with all of life.
It is not a rejection of the languages of science and engineering in favour of ancient or Indigenous languages, or vice versa, but a more thoughtful and considered blending of the two. This may help us explore some of the fundamental lessons we can learn from ecologies and how they might inform some guiding questions for change work. For example, the Centre for Ecoliteracy in California has developed a school ecoliteracy curriculum, where students learn maths, ecology, and systems thinking while growing healthy food. They have defined ecological principles that can help us frame questions we might want to ask in the design for systems change.
The language we use and the way we speak with each other provides clues as to the prevalent organisational metaphors and the cultural norms at play. The language of change, both in form and expression, is imprecise. However, we still tend to seek established frameworks, models, and processes as a way to help us work differently in public service. It is easier to point to a model and apply it in a different context than growing desired practices and help others grow theirs. But there is no magic bullet, no solutions to complex challenges — there are simply better or worse responses. It’s about finding the commonality in our narratives whilst acknowledging the differences in our perspectives.
Building capacity for embracing uncertainty, ambiguity, and emergence
The conventional form of organisation is a hierarchy, for example, command-and-control or top-down. This is where decision-making is sequestered in the upper tier of tightly managed management ranks and bureaucratic systems of control are the norm. At the other end of organisational forms is the heterarchy, for example, command of teams or team of teams. The difference between the two is whether you consider organisations as:
- a set of linear processes to be optimised for speed and efficiency; or,
- an ecology (a circular network of interdependent competing and cooperating organisms) from which the capacity for resilience may emerge when the conditions are right.
In a heterarchy, no one individual is ‘in charge’ of the organisation. It is not optimised to some defined end state, but instead, based on many weak ties linking the participants (as opposed to a fewer number of strong ties). People make their own decisions, create alliances and coalitions across differences, and develop the ability to cope with uncertainty. The initiative is back with them.
What happens in complex systems is that interactions happen in multiple, simultaneous, and nonlinear ways. UK Civil Service organisations are no exception to this. They are a network of circles with non-linear feedback systems, and not the map of linear processes we think they are (or attempt to impose on them). Both organisation and environment change as they influence each other through learning and adaptive behaviours. In this sense, organisations have collective means of adapting to environmental situations. So rather than attempting to reform these organisations to a new desired form, perhaps we can create the conditions where self-willed organisations are developed, based on ecological and social insights.
We are only just beginning to learn how to ask better questions as we become aware of the structures, patterns of activity, normative order, and relationships we have so far failed to pay attention to. Adopting ecological (and other) approaches may reveal the interactions and patterns that ordinarily escape our notice, making it more conducive to supporting our ability to think and act in complexity-friendly ways. We can use these to bring a fresh perspective to the most difficult, complex, and stubborn problems. It may help us hold multiple, often competing, ways of making sense of things and, in turn, organising ourselves.
Making choices in a radically uncertain world
We need to take the time to understand why things are the way they are and how the system actually works. The actual ‘work’ is soul deep, in how we live the questions. Our organisations are only going to be different if we’re willing to grow. There is much to learn from nature’s wisdom about how to organise ourselves. We can use nature’s own design principles to reimagine the basis of our organisations. This is both a new (e.g. living systems theories) and ancient idea (e.g. Indigenous thinking).
These are my wanderings of discovery — one where I’ve tried to simplify complex and conceptual material in a way to be able to say something. I’ve started somewhere, in the hope that, from this, more sophisticated framing, questions, and insights will follow.