Politics in Practice

Insights from our authors

System Recovery: could ‘grieving’ local government be re-vitalised?

Catherine Hobbs is a social scientist who worked in local government for three decades, with practical experience of multi-agency strategies in transport and health. She studied Local Governance and Systems Science at Birmingham and Hull Universities and is a member of the International Advisory Board for the Routledge Handbook of Systems Thinking. Her research interests lie in creating the space to address complexity.

Reach out to Catherine Hobbs:  @systemslocalgov    #SLLGov

Read Introduction: Local Government Reform and a Journey to the Empty Quarter free until April 5.

What inspired you to research complexity and local governance?

A long-term frustration that things could work more humanely in situations of complexity if local government could be allowed to use the energy within to fulfill this role. Also, admiration for the many competent and hard-working people in the local government sector.

The whole thing brewed through 29 years of working in local government, living through the many legislative changes, restructurings and, more latterly, the performance management culture, which is where the record got stuck. Through each re-organization or change management project, I’ve thought – “It’s not about how we’re structured, our technical expertise, or what we measure; but how we think and work together, and learn from that.” Like many right up to this day, I was inspired by Chapman’s ‘System Failure’ and Seddon’s work, both of which resonated. I needed to bail out so that I could help work on a system of recovery instead. 

My inquiry was conducted over a 12-year period and ruminated in many directions. We can reach into history to find such problems of complexity have been thought about for a long time. I agree wholeheartedly with Trevelyan that “Without social history, economic history is barren and political history is unintelligible.” I went exploring, interviewed and worked with many excellent thinkers and doers. I was exploring something that was absent, and the themes of leadership and innovation entered through the side door.

What struck you most during your research experience?

A local government practitioner who said, with immense feeling of quiet exasperation: “It’s devastating.....it grieves me that the public sector is under duress.” It was a defining moment.

Finding common ground and time to think between academia and practice for social progress is challenging, to say the least. I came to see this as a ‘meso-level’ between high-level meta-theory and the micro-level of everyday practice. A meso-level shared stage could be an effective use of resource (research and practice) for outward-facing public value outcomes. Yet, how do you take up the reins of addressing the complexity of this slow-motion intrinsic failure, when to do so, you have to start from a different place?

Why do you see building the capacity for systemic leadership as being important currently?

Increasingly in UK local government, particularly with reduced financial resource, a ‘low variety’ mechanistic approach of control is not fit for purpose for a ‘high variety’ complex world. Addressing complexity systemically rather than mechanistically is a unique challenge for public policy learning this century. It demands a form of systemic leadership that is rooted in the practicality of the every-day. My research accepts the value of multiple viewpoints/methodological pluralism, engendering a spirit of critical inquiry. 

Following many years of re-structuring and diminishing budgets in local government, a variety of systems thinking approaches may help the strait-jacketed local government sector recover and, using its considerable energy, be allowed to re-connect with public purpose. This would represent a more fundamental transformation than a frequent series of restrictive change projects or a sad choice of retrenchment, which seems to make a complete break from a principle of local democracy. 

This approach attempts to help tackle the fundamental flaws of reform that Bichard referred to in his plea for a public service strategy. The purpose and goals of the system itself have become unclear – placed at Meadows’ higher-level orders of intervention for effective change. It’s about so much more than the financial balance sheet - local government is about people’s daily lives and wider ‘hidden’ issues such as environmental protection. This interpretation of leadership focuses on taking a proactive stance to an attention deficit rather than sequential reactions to a budget deficit. 

We often hear or read ‘no magic bullet,’ or no ‘one size fits all,’ so seeking an appropriate variety of practical approaches is worth pursuing. All the distinguished approaches I researched are an established (though not fixed) result of great minds over many decades, many rooted in centuries-old philosophical musings – why not bring this together to signpost, enhance and develop our practical capabilities further? I see my research as taking further aspects of Bourgon’s work on a New Synthesis of Public Administration, current work at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham about building capabilities for the Twenty-First Century Public Servant, a recent plea from OECD that systems approaches to public sector challenges should be aligned with methodological pluralism, and the developing field of linking systems thinking with design thinking. It’s also relevant to public policy innovation labs and those taking soundings within the field of transformative innovation. More broadly, it’s compatible with the ideas of Flyvbjerg and others about the conscious framing of ‘phronetic social science,’ as it seeks to build capacity for value-rational deliberation and action, but there’s so much more to be explored in this regard…

The seismic shift to be made is from a service-led model of deterministic local government (as seen by Central Government, which was at one time adequate for historic needs…) to a systemic-deliberative model of emergent local governance which could be facilitated at the local level. The role of service design could be tailored to the locality (whether via public, private or third sector initiatives), following on adaptively from that form of deliberation. Local government is the obvious orchestrator of this so, how this shift can be facilitated could be a major area for social expression, learning and endeavor.

It’s important to emphasize that I avoided portraying a shallow ‘toolkit’ in order to get quick results, but instead was seeking out a more fundamental shift in thinking skills to be able to work and adapt together in a wider and longer-term context than usual. Others such as Hanson of OECD are thankfully asking similar questions. In this different context, leadership is interpreted as an act of convening and facilitating an open, creative and more inclusive process of social learning. So my research was anchored around facilitative approaches.

Where next?

Onwards and outwards…. This is a subject that merits persistence of attention despite its level of ambition and challenge to individuals, groups and current norms of behavior. Fortunately, many seem willing now to accept this position of puzzlement and work together outside their comfort zones, or challenge historic norms, whether researchers or practitioners. That’s why I’m optimistic that this is part of a movement that’s already gathering momentum in the UK and elsewhere, perhaps soon to emerge, like the effect of a Lorenz shifting attractor, as a new pattern via the creation of conditions under which this new context may emerge. 


North Cumbria

I am indebted to the Centre for Systems Studies, Hull University Business School, UK, for awarding the scholarship funds for my research 2012-2015.

Bichard, M. (2013). Editorial: The Need for a Public Service Strategy. Public Money & Management, 33(1), 3–4.

Bourgon, J. (Ed.). (2010). A Public Service Renewal Agenda for the 21st Century: the New Synthesis Project (1st ed.). London: Public Governance International.

Chapman, J. (2004). System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently, 2nd edn. London: Demos.

Hanson, A. (2018). Have we reached peak-toolkit?  Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/governance/observatory-public-sector-innovation/blog/page/havewereachedpeak-toolkit.htm 7 September 2018. Paris: OECD.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Science Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Knight, A. D., Lowe, T., Brossard, M., & Wilson, J. (2017). A Whole New World: Funding and Commissioning in Complexity. London.

Leicester, G. (2016). Transformative Innovation: A Guide to Practice and Policy. Axminster, England: Triarchy Press.

Lorenz, E. N. (1963). Deterministic nonperiodic flow. Journal of Atmospheric

Science 20, 130-141.

Meadows, D. H. (1999). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Hartland, VT: The Sustainability Institute.

Needham, C., & Mangan, C. (2014). The 21st Century Public Servant. University of Birmingham.

Observatory of Public Sector Innovation. (2017). Working with Change: Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges. Paris: OECD.

Ryan, A. J. (2014). A framework for systemic design. Formakademisk, 7(4, Art. 4), 1-14.

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control: A Better Way to Make the Work Work. Buckingham: Vanguard Education Limited.

Trevelyan, G.M. (1945). English Social History. Third impression, London, New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co.

Wilson, R., Jackson, P., & Ferguson, M. (2016). Editorial: Science or alchemy in collaborative public service? Challenges and future directions for the management and organization of joined-up government. Public Money & Management, 36(1), 1-4.

Stay informed

  • e-Newsletter

    Receive e-alerts about new books and journal launches, events & offers

    Note to the studio editor

    Actions from the studio need to be interpreted by the displaying application and only certain ids are interpreted. When you see this text the id you entered is not mapped to the context where it is currently used in.

    Current ID: nba-subscription

    The following ids are possible as standalone widgets:


    Shows a list of recommended books and journals with covers only.


    Shows a list of recommended books (either given by ISBN, recommended via Baynote or the latest of the discipline). The viewtype can be default (covers, information, price) or carousel (cover, title).

    baynotePageType (string)
    Name of baynote page type for filtering.
    disciplineResourceKey (string)
    Suffix of the resource key that contains the headline for the page on e.g. the facet search page. Maintained in 'Frontend.ProductSearchPage@section.resultlist.facet.'.
    discipline (string)
    Name of the main discipline as given in the CMA channel name (EAST view).
    discipline (string_list)
    List of subjectcodes.
    isbns (string)
    List of isbns separated by comma.
    isbns (string_list)
    List of isbns.
    random (boolean)
    If checked the list is randomized.
    size (int)
    Number of products to show. If missing the default is 18.Isbn-based lists ignore the size.
    textbook (boolean)
    Defines whether the list contains textbooks
    Only textbooks are shown
    Only non-textbooks are shown
    Textbooks and non-textbooks are shown
    hideDynamicLink (boolean)
    If checked no link is built to the facet search.
    latest (boolean)
    Shows a list of matching products from the product index (not Baynote) with newest products first.
    imprint (string_list)
    Shows a list of matching products from the product index which match the imprints.
    language (string)
    Used for language as a filter in baynote recommendations
    productCategoriesOnly (string_list)
    List of product categories required in book recommendations
    productCategoriesExclude (string_list)
    List of product categories to be excluded in book recommendations
    seriesIDs (string_list)
    List of Series ids required in book recommendations


    Shows a list of recommended journals (manually maintained) with covers and title.

    journalNumbers (string)
    List of journal numbers separated by comma.
    random (boolean)
    If checked the list is randomized.


    Shows a list of recommended bookseries (manually maintained) with covers and title.

    orderNumbers (string)
    List of order/series numbers separated by comma.
    random (boolean)
    If checked the list is randomized.


    Shows a list of disciplines without title.


    Shows a list of jobs open for different locations


    Shows list of three USPs


    Shows list of advantages


    Shows three columns of trust pilot


    Show a list of disciplines links


    Show a list of newest books


    Show a list of recommended books


    Author query article approval


    A widget that allows a user to subscribe to the NBA by entering his email address


    Shows the daily deal in homepage design.

    The following ids are possible in the context of a Wizard-Collection:


    Shows a registration form with instructor address information.


    Shows a registration form with instructor data information.


    Shows a welcome message to the new instructor.