Mayvin_Public Sector Organisations Relationships Learning Restorative HR RHR Organisation Development OD Restorative Justice Chris Agyris

It’s time to be restorative in the Public Sector

Public sector organisations are in a crisis of exhaustion. They are beaten down by everlasting austerity and increasing complexity. How can we restore relationships and learning in order to support their earnest intent to offer real wellbeing and service quality to their employees and customers?

Restorative HR, a pioneering field of practice that brings together HR and Organisation Development (OD) with Restorative Justice, is the way forward for organisations. The essence of this innovative approach is the skilful practice of confronting the difficult while it’s still easy in order to more artfully manage relationships and, in doing so, look after yourself as well.

The public sector has been the place where you could expect to find a learning culture. I personally learnt lots about leadership, service, diversity and equality, by my time working in local government in the 1990s. A colleague of mine, now retired, who plied his trade in Learning and Development in a County Council in the nineties and noughties, was one of my most innovative and reflective mentors, and part of a team who all seem to exude this spirit of learning.

But has a certain defensiveness crept in to the public sector? Like an organisational equivalent of shell-shock, a kind of reflex to ‘hold on to what we’ve got’. Is there a wariness to be bold, innovative and open to learning?

If so, it makes sense. Senior leaders in say, local government or the NHS, face an arch set of complex problems, and with ever decreasing resources to deploy. This leads to stress, burnout, overwork, tunnel vision, in short all the things that dictate cautious outlook.

“I just don’t have time to really reflect and learn’, one senior health service manager put it to me recently. Yet there are more layers to this puzzle: add to this the infamous ‘Daily Mail test’. As this same manager continued, ‘and I can’t look like I am taking the time to learn either’.

She continued: ‘How does it look if I take time out from this hamster wheel of short term problem solving to ‘reflect’, god forbid at some nice pleasant hotel or conference? I could even be snapped and tweeted enjoying the desserts at the buffet lunch.’

The idea that learning is a luxury has been exacerbated by the current austerity context. But learning is the work; it is a necessity. The ever increasing complexity of organisational life means it is imperative that we find opportunities to do things differently, in ways that have never been done before.

Chris Agyris, the godfather of Organisational Development wrote a famous article in the Harvard Business Review in 1991 called ‘teaching smart people how to learn’. This basically sets out how ‘defensive reasoning’ works – why the most clever, senior people may be defended against the vulnerability and not knowing required for deeper learning to take place.

What this adds up to is that Agyris’s proposition is:

        • Even more true today than ever (for the above reasons)
        • Particularly true at senior leadership levels, where the optics of reflection are problematic (being seen to be nose to the grindstone)
        • And particularly in the public sector, where austerity has become the new normal


Take the recent example, of the Environment Agency boss who was ‘caught’ staying on holiday (at Christmas time, for heaven sake!) and forced to resign because he trusted his colleagues to be dealing with the flood disaster. It just looked bad.

It is time to restore the value of learning to these organisations, these big complex public sector systems that struggle with the complexity they face, on a shoestring. This means restoring relationships. The most valuable culture of learning is with, and through, each other and that demands a level of trust and therefore vulnerability at every level. At Mayvin we have developed the Restorative HR approach as a way to do that, and we did so by working with a local authority that bucked this trend of defensiveness and caution.

The service profit chain hasn’t gone away – your internal culture of service will directly drive your external quality of service. If the relationships have broken down internally, and people have stopped learning, it is likely you have stopped listening and responding to your customers. This model is as true now as it always was.

Restorative practice is designed to work both boldy and carefully. The Daily Mail test isn’t going to go away, so public sector organisations need a carefuly crafted but honest engagement to repair and restore pride and learning.