A Whole New World – what next? Toby Lowe, Newcastle University

uncertainty blog


It’s been a month since we launched ‘A Whole New World: Funding and Commissioning in Complexity’ and the response has been incredible. Over 120 people came to the two launch events, and more than 1000 people read the report online in the first week. We’ve also started to have some excellent conversations about how to take this work forward.

In this post I want to briefly outline the key ideas, and talk about what we might do next.

‘New Public Management’ is dying – about time too

New Public Management (NPM) has been the dominant paradigm for public services for the last 40-odd years.  Its worldview is based on the idea that public servants cannot be trusted to organise and run public services, and so must be extrinsically motivated to perform well – by means of competitive markets and performance targets.  It seems that an increasing number of people recognise that this way of funding and commissioning public services, and other social interventions, is no longer helpful.

Now, we can begin to see what an alternative could look like, and a number of Local Authorities, other public bodies, and charitable funders have responded with interest.

A new paradigm: Complexity-friendly funding and commissioning

Complexity-friendly funding and commissioning offers a new way to think about and do public services, and other social interventions. It is based on three core ideas:


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.

System health: quality of relationships

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.

All this is underpinned by a realistic and unflinching acceptance of the complex messiness of the world as it is, and rejects the idea of oversimplifying problems to make management of social interventions easier.

Case studies: making complexity-friendly funding and commissioning real

Through these case studies, we can begin to see how funders and commissioners are putting this into practice.

Plymouth Council – Commissioning in Complexity for adults with complex needs:


The Whitman Institute – Providing complexity-friendly charitable funding


What next: taking this movement forward

The report was only able to outline the new complexity-friendly way of funding and commissioning in the broadest brush strokes. At the launch events we hosted discussions which enabled a wide range of people to identify the work that is required to make this paradigm useful and practical for them. From these discussions, we have been able to identify three broad areas of potential work to be done:

1.      Expanding knowledge – what do we need to know in order to make the paradigm work in practice?

Drawing from our conversations with a wide set of stakeholders at the events and subsequently, we have identified there is work to be done in the following areas:

  • Accountability and measurement – people need to understand what accountability systems and structures work within complex environments, and how measurement can most effectively contribute to learning and improvement
  • Knowing what a ‘healthy system’ looks like – what are the indicators that enable people to recognise that they have a healthy system, or that there is work to do to improve system health?
  • Leadership – connecting the ‘complexity-friendly’ work with emerging ideas on distributed and compassionate leadership
  • Competition and collaboration – when are these methods appropriate for funding/commissioning within complexity?
  • What are the differences between charitable funders and public sector commissioners in practice. There is more to be done to understand the detail of how it can work best in these two different contexts.
  • Delivery organisation and user voice perspectives – the work so far has only identified what ‘complexity-friendly’ looks like from the perspective of funders and commissioners. What does it look like from the perspective of delivery organisations and ‘end users’? For example, what are the workforce requirements of complexity-friendly delivery organisations?

This work will involve a strand of action research which supports commissioners, funders, delivery organisations and users in different contexts to experiment and explore the kinds of issues identified above.

The result of this work should be guides which help organisations to implement this way of thinking and working in practice. People have asked for ‘how to’ guides, but this doesn’t feel quite right, as it doesn’t recognise the complexity of how work must be done differently in different contexts. It will more likely be guides which highlight the right questions to ask, processes which have enabled people to answer those questions well, and case studies of the kinds of answers that people have come up with in different places.

2.      Inviting people in and distributing leadership

There is work to be done to promote the paradigm – to ‘invite people in’ (in the words of one of the events) and to create distributed leadership, so that there are a range of voices and perspectives shaping it and helping to take it forward.

This will likely involve:

  • Digital discussion – e.g. blogging about the work, engaging in on-line conversation
  • Face to face – presenting the work at practitioner conferences etc
  • Building a leadership group(s?) – forming a funders (and commissioners?) group to problem solve, create a common direction and share information and ideas

3.      Developing communities of practice – building the learning infrastructure

The conversations at the events placed huge importance on building a community of practice for this way of thinking and working. Such communities were seen as crucial in providing the space to enable people undertaking this work to learn from one another and that being part of such a community enables people to be brave – to have the courage to assert the importance of this way of working to colleagues and others.

This will likely involve:

  • Building reflective communities of practice – working with existing network organisations to enable them to create mechanisms for peer learning, and a ‘positive error culture’ (a culture in which talking about mistakes and uncertainty is a good thing). The phrase at one of the launches was ‘we need space to talk about our dirty little secrets’. It is likely that this will require learning infrastructure at a variety of scales and geographies.
  • Mentoring/buddying – creating 1-2-1 learning relationships
  • Hosting learning materials – creating a knowledge-resource repository and maintaining that.

These are some initial ideas – what else needs doing?

Join in!

To accomplish even half of this, we need people and organisations to join in, who want to help take this work forward.

Newcastle University and Collaborate will continue to help facilitate the development of this paradigm. Could you help too? Do you want to lead aspects of this work? Do you have ideas about how it could be done? Are there things missing? If so, please get in touch. Leave a comment below, or contact us…

Toby Lowe – Newcastle University – @tobyjlowe

Annabel Davidson-Knight – Collaborate @annabelLknight

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