Public Service Pioneers 2021: Our Learnings

30 August 2022

Public Service Pioneers 2021: Reaching and Sustaining New Horizons was a virtual, month-long learning event that happened in March 2021. 

This article shares:

  • How we came to deliver PSP virtually
  • What we discovered and did 
  • What we learned from delivering differently with a visual summary
  • What we learned from checking-in with 60+ pioneers with a visual summary 
  • The evaluation we did of PSP

Public Service Pioneers (PSP) was a people-powered event that went through two co-creative phases. It was an experiment into creating a learning community that became a virtual experiment because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It aimed to connect over 70 people working in, on, and around public services

We wanted to build care into how we delivered—people were digitally fatigued and juggling visible, invisible, and unanticipated challenges while working from home. We knew we wouldn’t get everything right the first-time, but we embraced the fluctuating Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and set out to try and test something different. As hybrid working transforms public sector work moving forward, we hope our learnings and the content PSP curated, will continue to broaden possibilities within public services.

The Y Lab team would like to thank everyone involved for being a part of this process through-out our entire PSP journey. This blog provides a short account of that journey. If you want to learn more about PSP’s original co-creative workshops designed for in-person delivery, or the insights that informed our virtual programme.

Short-cuts to our PSP ‘21 Material

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How we came to deliver PSP virtually

On March 24th 2020, Y Lab in partnership with Centre For Public Impact and WISERD’s Cultural Participation Research Network, was due to deliver Public Service Pioneers in person at the Wales Millenium Centre. Instead, on March 23rd the message across the UK was clear, “stay at home”. By March 26th, the first national lockdown in the UK came into effect. People working across public services were thrust into crisis management mode with many abruptly staring at their new home workstations, trying to grapple with a new normal — a computer as a lifeline.

Instead of switching immediately to virtual delivery, we paused before considering adaptation. We wanted to test if the design decisions we made for an in-person event still held true after the global disruption. We knew from our co-creative workshops that people wanted authentic speakers who had direct experience of change in public services. There was an expressed appetite to learn about real challenges and failures people faced, instead of glossy success stories. The reality of change is it’s hard. People wanted to leverage an in-person gathering to create a community they could tap-into to give and receive peer support on the day and after.

inspiration and action all in one day

Most importantly, participants wanted both inspiration and action all in one day. This is why we named our original event Public Service Pioneers: Tools for change and how to use them.

September 2020: We invited our original speakers and facilitators together to workshop through some critical questions to test this initial design:

  • Should we deliver Public Service Pioneers virtually? 
  • If so, how can we be kind to ourselves and kind to our participants in its delivery?
    • How can we make this event feel relevant to public workers given all the challenges they are going to face in the next 6 months.
    • How can we bring the physical world into the virtual world so that attendees are physically distancing but not socially distanced?

Discoveries and Actions

Our conversations with event speakers revealed that we had to do something, but focus on bringing people together to support each other through transformation. Simply talking about change and innovation wasn’t enough. Public workers were concerned that “business as usual” was creeping back when it wasn’t fit-for-purpose. Any event redesign called for examples of transformation, community-connection, and movement building.

Simply talking about change and innovation wasn’t enough

Many of our speakers requested that we deliver differently; the initial novelty of digital delivery had worn off. People were, and still are, digitally fatigued. They requested we move away from Zoom-based gathering to explore new ways to distance learn and community build. They suggested we take a blended approach to event delivery that allowed people to join when they could and how they preferred.

With these requests as our foundation, we explored new formats and speakers. We chose to pre-record keynotes and talks in a conversational style to be easy listening and for people to engage with in their own time. We decided to trial Miro, an online collaborative whiteboard, as a central holding space for all our pre-recorded talks. Also by using Miro, speakers could curate a participant’s online experience: in addition to their talk, they could share resources to facilitate deeper learning.

You can explore Public Service Pioneers Miro-verse here.

Explore new systems for distanced learning and community building

To complement the self-paced digital offering, we hosted weekly, live workshops called “Experience Sessions” and enabled 1:1 networking about talks and content by matching PSP participants through Randomised Cuppa Trials. We also mailed each participant a welcome package to give them a physical map of the Miro Board, schedule of events, and physical resources that our speakers wanted to share. This was our blended approach.

Twitter credit @owilce

If you want to learn more about the technical decisions and learnings get in touch or read our summary slides here on GoogleSlides. 

What we learnt from delivering differently

Although we successfully got 85 self-proclaimed pioneers to sign-up to our experiment, real and sustained engagement was low; only about 20-25% of our participants reached moderate to high levels of engagement. This was after: 

  • We had everyone confirm upon registration that they would actively participate (we made our ‘ask’ of participants explicit);
  • Each participant received a care package with an event ‘map’ in the post detailing all our offerings;
  • Weekly email nudges with content broken-down and directly linked; 
  • Having miro support sessions twice weekly;
  • Continuous access to all PSP content through the miro board.

To better understand why, we revised our checkout questions and conducted focus groups and interviews with six participants. The graphic below highlights our key findings from these touchpoints:

PSP Visual Summary

Psp Graphics Output

Summary of the data:

  • Respondents were very impressed by PSP, the quality of its content and potential. 
  • Some found the approach to digital-delivery complex, which affected their engagement. 
  • Many others said the volume of content was both attractive because ‘it had something for everyone’, but also, too much to navigate alone. 
  • People largely wanted to stay involved
  • Many felt unsatisfied with their ability to engage with the content, wishing they could have engaged more. 

Participants wanted us to learn from PSP, share those learnings, and continue refining the PSP purpose and idea with the community; building a community of practice. But, for this desire to be sustainable it needs to evolve beyond Y Lab.

Our focus groups and interviews surfaced interesting conversations about “time”. A common thread was that people’s relationship with time, productivity, and personal development was complicated by the challenges of working remotely from home.

people’s relationship with time, productivity, and personal development was complicated by the challenges of working remotely from home

Our approach surfaced design tensions around building a distanced learning community. The tensions listed below make for a fantastic, future user-centred-design challenge because we don’t have a concrete answer:

  • people want to self-organise and be autonomous, but also need structure and predictability that doesn’t feel prescriptive 
  • people’s relationship with time and time management varies greatly 
  • people long for connection that’s not an additional digital engagement, but also recognise that digital mediums enable a wider geographic reach and flexibility
  • people desire deeper content to help them to act but content can’t appear too voluminous 

Quotes from participants informing the tensions we’ve listed:

‘I was scribbling about autonomy vs commitment: maybe the tension is part of setting the scene for [PSP]…. holding people’s tension about their styles of learning, not being predictive, and having them reflect on that.’

‘People want engagement with real humans. There is less interaction when it’s prerecorded.’

‘How do you connect people more as a community of pioneers when it requires an additional time commitment? It’s a balance between time and engagement.’

‘When ‘bringing groups together [how can you] do the unpacking and build on the curious, in a way that is still spontaneous?’

Caveats about the data: the majority of ‘checkout’ survey participants were likely actively engaged participants, not the 75-85% of people with limited engagement. Focus group and interview participants were people we observed engaging with PSP. Although, their engagement levels varied.

What did we learnt from checking-in with our Pioneers

When people registered for PSP, we asked what each of them was feeling, expecting, observing, and desiring. The graphic below is a visual summary of that data.

Pioneers Learning

Psp Graphics Output

A warm-hearted thank you to Graham Leicester, of the International Futures Forum and keynote speaker, for helping us to ground our questions in the Three Horizons Approach.


We hope this is only the beginning of what Public Service Pioneers can shape and nourish.

We encourage you to explore and share our PSP Miro-Verse or our playlists on YouTube or Spotify to see what the speakers had to say.

Unanticipated change thrust upon us during the pandemic closed doors and opened others. As of October 2021, Y Lab entered into a new phase with Cardiff University as its sole lead. Nesta Cymru now focuses on delivering on its own missions. We hope others will pick up the PSP baton and carry its spirit into the future.