UCL Policy Lab


A radical invitation to collaborate

21 March 2024

How can we transform public service design and delivery by focusing on the power of human relationships? We talked to Nick Kimber and Osian Jones of London Borough of Camden to explore how they are changing public services for the better.


This article originally appeared in the UCL Policy Lab Magazine.

Nick Kimber is co-convener of a major conference on the relational state hosted by UCL, the Future Governance Forum, Citizens UK, Power to Change and others. 

How can we transform public service design and delivery by focusing on the power of human relationships? That is a question that the UCL Policy Lab has been increasingly investigating. James Baggaley sat down with Nick Kimber, Director of Strategy and Design at London Borough of Camden and Osian Jones, Head of Corporate Strategy for the Borough, to talk about how they are changing public services for the better.

Nothing less than a “radical invitation” is needed, a real opportunity for citizens and the state to relate to one another in a way not seen since the birth of the welfare state. Or so, Nick Kimber and Osian Jones, from Camden Council, believe. 

When I met them, we sat in the small reception space at Camden Council – where those seeking support and help often arrive in moments of greatest need—each citizen with their own set of complex requirements and relationships. The collection of tables is separated by neat bookshelves and bright open windows. This is not the kind of cold, bureaucratic space one imagines when we think of local government public services. It is far more welcoming, warm. 

Camden, along with other councils across the UK, are attempting to break the status quo. And this isn’t about heroic exceptionalism, Camden has partnership with councils such as Leeds and Manchester to name but a few. This is a about a real national network of reformers. They are shifting to a model of public service design and delivery in which the human connections between individuals, the community and those who work for the state are the primary drivers of innovation and support. In some sense, it is an attempt to overcome the challenges facing modern developed societies, those of poverty, alienation and social disconnection, by drawing on the oldest of human strengths: belonging, knowledge and even love. 

Kimber is clear about the importance of leadership and core values in driving this change. 

‘How we design services is so important for Camden, partly because we see ourselves as a values-led organisation – in everything we do. And one of those values is around empathy. From our chief executive down, our work is about being empathetic human beings. It’s so key to this way of working.’ 

When Kimber and Jones speak about design-led approaches, I hear the passion of individuals who believe in the place they serve and the people who shape it – the people of Camden themselves. This strong sense of values, mission, and place permeate their whole approach. 

Informed by the inspiring work of others in this edition of the Policy Lab magazine, including Hilary Cottam, reformers like Kimber and Jones form the basis of a growing community and network of policymakers, civil society leaders, public servants and business leaders who place human relationships at the heart of service design and delivery. 

‘Trust, empathy, and humility: these are all central to how our approach operates,’ Jones says, reflecting on her role working with Camden’s political leaders and communities. ‘When we step into a space it is about recognising what we don’t know and stepping into spaces with an intention to build trust before we act. Stepping into spaces with an intention to learn and understand is super important.’ 

Trust, empathy, and humility are not often words citizens associate with large state entities these days. Yet Kimber and Jones are clear that their approach is not wholly new. These values, after all, permeate so many of the relationships between specific individuals working within public services at the moment. The GP and their patient, the social worker and the family they are working to support, the teacher and the student looking for help; in each of these individual cases deep connections can prevail. And it is the fact that our attention has too often been drawn away from these specific relationships and focused instead on abstract structures and targets, that some believe has led to deepening distrust and major failings in outcomes. 

Listening to these stories and sitting with Kimber and Jones in their welcoming space in Camden, it is easy to forget the intense wave of challenges facing British local government at present. With enormous financial pressures and ever deepening social crises, the burden being place on local government has never been more acute nor the complexity of demand more nuanced. Yet Kimber and Jones are clear about the lessons and leadership we can take from the innovations in service provision we are witnessing all across the country.   

‘Be it Camden or any public service body, we need to be thinking about how an organisation moves from top-down and bureaucratic to relational while remaining high performing.’

‘I think the real advantage of local government is that we have real relational practice existing at a strategic level and a frontline level. You see, children's, social workers, adult social care services are fundamentally relational services. And we draw a lot of our specialist expertise from those frontline practitioners into organisational strategy. We really benefit from that dialogue between different aspect of leadership and delivery – that’s about creating a space for conversations.’ 

How political leadership interacts and supports this new, more relational approach will likely be critical to public service delivery in the coming years. As UCL experts, including the Lab’s theme lead, Dan Honig, have explained, the need for this new approach is driven by both the demands of our age and by the severe financial constraints that so many public services face. 

For both Kimber and Jones, leadership at a political level is key to making real progress. And at heart, the kind of leadership required rests most of all in a willingness to make a genuine invitation to everyone to collaborate for the common good, across private and public sectors, and, critically, the community at large. 

Kimber believes bold leadership of this sort can create a space and a belief in a new way of working.

  ‘Be it Camden or any public service body, we need to be thinking about how an organisation moves from top-down and bureaucratic to relational while remaining simultaneously high performing and still doing the basics well. A relational organisation is one where relationships are embedded into the core code of the organisation. Into its policy, procedures, practice.’ 

To some – this more contingent, people-based, relational approach can feel risky. It means moving on from many of the targets and centralised control at the heart of the so-called “new public management” that has dominated British public service design and delivery for so long. Letting go can feel like a radical act. But as both Kimber and Jones make clear, attempting to manage the complexity of people’s lives in a top-down bureaucracy has proved to be a mirage, even if one grounded in an understandable desire for accountability. When the lives of those who depend on and provide public services are constantly monitored and measured using abstract systems, we can strip the humanity out of them and end up doing little to transform the lives of those we claim to care about. We can measure all but deliver little. 

‘Take the example of children’s early-years help and child protection. In Camden, you have a social work system with a focus on what we call a resilient family model – these are relational practice models that exist within our children’s services.’ Sometimes, of course, crises are unavoidable, and the state still ends up taking children away from their parent, but even then Kimber and Jones argue the approach taken matters. ‘We have the responsibility to do that sometimes – but acting in a genuinely relational approach is key to good outcomes.’ 

‘What’s felt like a shift in Camden has been thinking about individuals in context’, Jones continues. ‘And so, thinking about things like family group conferencing or early intervention, we always seek to ask how can we properly see the individual within their context, their community, their family? Then, we also support frontline staff within their context and their deep knowledge. That relational practice exists between staff and service users, but also between staff as well,’ Jones says. 

And it is not just political, social and economic challenges which are driving this new innovative relational approach to public services. Technology can help too. Sometimes seen as a tool for removing human interaction, Kimber thinks instead that used in the right ways new digital technologies can make these relational approaches even more effective and viable. 

‘Take our earlier example of child protection; Artificial Intelligence is a tool which potentially takes a day of labour out from every social worker in the UK. It can work like a co-pilot. It can record your case notes verbatim; it can translate those into a set of actions that you’re accountable for; leaving the social worker to focus on the human dimension.’ 

In this sense Kimber and Jones show how we develop new ways for public services to use technology to enhance human interaction, supporting a move to a focus on relationships. Their idea is that those who shape public services should stop running away from what makes the essence of our human lives -- our relations with those around us -- but instead run towards it. We should be seeking to support and enhance people’s lives through deep personal connection, understanding and compassion. 

What is being fostered in Camden, is also seen in plentiful other local authorities across Britain. From North Lincolnshire to Wigan, people with deep knowledge and relationships with citizens are not only helping fix broken public services but also transforming how individuals interact with the state and politics. As Britain faces its future, the question now is whether central government can follow suit? 

Explainer: Design-led Public Services

In Camden, we use a design-led approach to changing and improving public services because we believe that effective, relational public services need to put people at their centre. With local government being uniquely positioned to focus on communities and individuals, and a design-led approach’s emphasis on drawing on a wide range of skills and expertise to make tangible change and take action, it allows us to work even more closely with citizens to solve problems and provide the most relevant support.

Empathy is a core value for us, which we seek to embed throughout the development and delivery of our services by prioritising understanding the needs and experiences of everybody involved - working closely with front-line staff, the teams that support them, and the residents they serve. Throughout the design-led process, we continue to hear the importance of reflecting on the opportunities and barriers to delivering relational and empathetic services (which is how staff instinctively want to work) and how designing services with staff and residents helps build trust and long-lasting relationships with our communities.

Local government services need to be able to cope with uncertainty, with making long-term decisions which can flex and respond to change, and with recognising the limits of our understanding and capacity. A design-led approach reduces risk by testing assumptions and allowing us to unpick complexity, and it also encourages humility and transparency about what can be known, and achieved, at a particular point. Design gives us a framework for asking the right questions, including the right people, testing and learning the best solutions for our current context and place - and reducing waste and increasing public value.