Understanding complexity informed public management

Complexity-informed funding, commissioning and action: How are people implementing a complexity-informed approach?

A Three Year Action Research enquiry, funded by The Tudor Trust

[Also check out Melissa’s Hawkins blog (the Research Associate on this project) to get her perspective: https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/melissahawkins/ ]

A new way of funding, commissioning and delivering social interventions has emerged over the last two years. This is a complexity-informed approach, which is more human, systemic and adaptive. This new paradigm for public management is outlined in the ‘Whole New World:  Funding and Commissioning in Complexity’

At its heart, there are three key shifts in thinking:


Working in this way assumes that those doing the work of social interventions are intrinsically motivated to do a good job. They do not require ‘incentivising’ to do the right thing. Instead, they need help and support to continuously improve their judgement and practice.

Learning and Adaptation

Working in this way assumes that learning is the mechanism to achieve excellent performance and continuous improvement. Learning comes from many sources – from measurement and analysis, and also from reflection on the sense-making and judgements we make every day in situations of uncertainty. This new paradigm views learning as a feedback loop which drives adaptation and improvement in a system.

Looking after the health of the system

Outcomes are created by people’s interaction with whole systems, not by particular interventions or organisations. Funders and commissioners working in this way take some responsibility for the health of the system as a whole, because healthy systems produce better outcomes. They take a system coordination role. They invest in network infrastructure which enables actors in the system to communicate effectively; they invest in building positive, trusting relationships and developing the skills of people who work in the system.

How does this new paradigm work in practice?

Funders, commissioners and delivery organisations around the UK have begun to adopt this new paradigm. We are helping to bring them together in a Community of Practice to help them reflect together on the key challenges of working in this way. These challenges include:

  • How does accountability work, once we’ve recognised that it is impossible to hold people/organisations accountable for delivering outcomes?
  • What are the processes and cultures which enable learning to drive adaptation?
  • What does a healthy system look like, and how do we know if we’ve got one?

To help develop knowledge about how the organisations who are working in this way are addressing some of these challenges, we’ve created a three year action research project. Our researcher, Melissa Hawkins, will be working with the organisations who are at the vanguard of this new way of working to help them explore how they are answering these and other key questions. Melissa will develop case studies which help the wider Community of Practice to understand how people are working in this complexity-informed way.

We’ll give updates soon on who and where these case studies are.

If you’d like to find out more about the research, please contact Melissa on Melissa.hawkins@newcastle.ac.uk