Adult Development Models and their use in the Public Sector

Angelika Pohnitzer

Reflections on IFIS' Online Colloquium N° 45

What if public leaders were aware of their own stages of development, of the type of leadership and communication they hence gravitate towards? What if city planners kept in mind the different stages present in the population they are catering for in their decision-making and communication? And what if civil servants were able to understand where their customers are coming from in terms of adult development?

As so many of us, I was flashed by a rainbow of potential when I learned about adult development models. During the last year, I used my thesis in Integrated Risk Management as an opportunity to delve deeper. I explored the potential of adult development frameworks to serve the public sector, particularly in terms of increasing urban resilience and social cohesion. In doing so, I focused on

  • Public leaders: political and civil service leaders, but also other types of public leaders; and
  • Civil servants: directly or indirectly communicating with citizens, be it as policy makers, planners or in direct customer service.

I used Wilber’s four quadrants for looking at the different aspects of resilience, namely prevention of, resistance to and learning in the face of crises. I focused on the inner side instead of the outer side that is usually the focus of urban risk management.

In my research, I found reassuring examples of awareness in the public sector of complex relationships between individual and collective levels. Recent joint announcements by the mayors united in the WHO European Healthy Cities Network speak about the link between individual and collective resilience, and the close connection between people, place and planet.
Serving as another example: a multi-disciplinary team of researchers is looking at meaningful and ethical communication as part of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) Enlightenment 2.0 programme. Their findings will be based on previous JRC reports on “Our political nature” and the importance of values and identities. Both of them bring attention to influences on decisions beyond our rational minds. The Mindfulness Initiative’s “Mindfulness: developing agency in urgent times” and, in particular, the compilation of responses of researchers and practitioners was also a useful source of findings and recommendations in this respect.

Could the awareness of adult development models in the public sector make a difference in implementing their recommendations, and how could this awareness best be mainstreamed into public institutions and their capacity building programmes?

Elke Fein, managing director of IFIS, was one of ten European experts with backgrounds in public participation, political innovation, and development-oriented research and consultancy, whom I addressed with this question.

All experts confirmed that an increased awareness of their own perspective and their target groups’ needs based on their stages of development can contribute to urban resilience. Inner transformation is needed on both individual and collective levels for better responding to the increasing diversity, and linked volatility, uncertainty and complexity, of urban settings.

Given the highly demanding nature of stage development, sustainable vertical development cannot be guaranteed by any capacity building programme. However, the experts’ experience shows that also horizontal learning about adult development combined with repeated reflection and exchange opportunities in small, cross-functional groups can have a significant effects, not only on organisational and institutional cultures but also in terms of more target-group specific planning and communication. For leaders, complementary development-oriented assessment and coaching, as well as initial expert support in applying this new perspective to concrete operational challenges is recommended.

In December 2021, I was delighted to follow Elke’s invitation to present my findings as part of the IFIS Online Colloquium series. A summary of the theoretical background and concrete recommendations for public leaders and human resources professionals can be found on the scientific poster, which I used as a basis for the presentation.

During the presentation, I shared examples of successful interventions by the experts interviewed. Participants themselves mentioned the initiative and the Neighbourhood Parliaments as examples of public leadership at the communal level. According to studies, this is the most useful level of intervention when it comes to increasing social cohesion. And this is especially the case when it happens through networks of local partners who have a good knowledge of and can directly address the changing needs of their communities.

One participant suggested that the importance of the meso-level of cities and communication were under-represented in Wilber's model, although communication is at the basis of all development. Also, the importance of cooperation across sector boundaries was highlighted by participants. Marilyn Hamilton’s comprehensive model of the and related interventions bringing together the four voices of the city is a noteworthy step in this direction. The conclusion of my thesis (p31f.) includes further specific recommendations for inter-disciplinary exchange amongst researchers and public-sector consultants.

Based on these, I continue my exploration with researchers and consultants on how to facilitate this important dialogue. If you are interested in exploring the topic further, I am looking forward to continuing the conversation!


Angelika Pohnitzer is a full member of IFIS and a member of the board. She works as an organizational advisor, leadership trainer and coach. You can learn more about her services on her website and write her at angelikaatfoturis [dot] works (angelika[at]foturis[dot]works). She is looking forward to connecting on LinkedIn.