Harnessing systems thinking in public policy process

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Yesterday, I got to meet a number of systems thinkers in the flesh – hooray.  It was at a joint event arranged by Prof Eileen Munro of the LSE and Prof Ray Ison at the OU…partly to mark 40 years of systems teaching at the OU.

There were about 30/35 people there – mostly handpicked through systems and public sector networks.  Eileen and Ray had designed it as a systemic inquiry using conversational mapping in small table groups.  Every so often there was some front of the room ‘input’ reflections from people who had been involved in the use of systems thinking in public sector in different ways…the programme information is here (SYSTEMS+40Program) which provides info on each of these speakers…..including me – but more of that later.

It is easy to get enthused in a room like that – the energy levels were amazing – and the mark of any good meeting is that people didn’t quickly dash off at the end, people were chatting, connecting and so on for a good 40 minutes afterwards – and then for a few of us longer in a pub.

Just a few thoughts that struck me as the day went on and I reflected on the way home on the train (admittedly with a glass of wine inside me)…

It seemed really easy to dwell on the difficulties – why isn’t systems thinking being used? – rather than notice the positives – why have we managed to get it right, where we have – and how can we learn from that to take things forward?  I started to think about whether we have got a helpful model of ‘change’ in our heads – it seemed that even as a group of systems thinkers we were drawing on a traditional change management model with ‘barriers’ to change; the need to educate; the need to start with the most senior and so on.  I am not sure we questioned that model of change – that underpinning image – it felt to me like we defaulted towards it.  Would a different model of change be more helpful to us – perhaps some of the models of institutional change and social change?  Or the one of ‘large scale change’ developed by NHS Institute of Innovation and Improvement (see presentation pdf linked from the very bottom of this webpage)? Would it be more helpful to think along the lines of a ‘movement’ – the types of ‘movement’ that got women the vote or the introduction of civil partnerships (which are now stepping up to equal marriage of course)?  I know systems isn’t tangible enough to promote through a march on parliament or to tie ourselves to railings(!), but each and every action that we take individually and collectively is inching us along – changing understandings and changing practices – and each time any one of us does something it exposes another set of people to the opportunity to change.  If systems thinking is such a change in paradigm, then we have to work on that change in meaning and questioning, rather than focus on introducing systems approaches.  That makes the approaches the means to an end – rather than an end in themselves  (actually I realise now that someone in my group said that yesterday).

It would be interesting to think then about the key ‘events’ in the history of our process of change so far.  Starting with the ‘thinkers’ who started work on some of the fundamental concepts – moving through to the first educational courses that were based on such ideas – moving into the way that Systems ideas are now being used to inform thinking in such a range of intellectual fields – moving to the growing number of people who are coming across those Systems ideas in educational courses from those other intellectual fields – and now, the number of people who are doing a good job in whatever their field and when asked say “well, it is because of my grounding in systems thinking”.  Yes, it is slow and it is frustrating – but then the first people who questioned the morality of the slave trade probably found that movement slow and frustrating but they got there in the end.

The opportunity is there now – there is the case for it – is it the moment of chance – maybe 29 years on systems thinkers can take Schon’s ideas public learning etc (see this blog) and use them to bring Schon’s ideas into the mainstream.  Would that be reflexivity???

The other thing that struck me is the nature of the discussion around the notion of “public policy”.  Systems ideas even re-write the book on what public policy is – from one of instrumental rationality blueprint top-down centrally-led etc TO one of lots of stakeholders, public action, ideologically led as well as evidence based, needing deliberation and dialogue etc.  So how much do we have to play the ‘existing’ policy game in order to change the game completely?

I think we also need to make a clear distinction between the use of systems thinking to improve public services (health care; policing; social care etc) meaning things that are ‘delivered’ and the use of systems thinking within policy processes.  From my work I tend to think of ‘services’ as interventions made to an individual or family – sure the way these services are funded etc is the product of policy but the way we as citizens experience them is on an individual basis – our concern as a service users is that they are good quality and effective; our concern as a tax payer is that they are efficient and not wasteful.  But services in my mind are very different from policies as interventions that affect a whole population – with very little understanding of the causal relationship between doing x and the life of individual y, there is a lot less predictability here, it is much harder to make the judgement call – so what is our economic development policy; what is our spatial planning policy; what is our regulation policy etc etc.

I also wonder whether there is a disjunct between the way systems approaches are packaged up and the ‘jobs’ that people doing policy have.  So if I think of the sorts of questions policy makers are involved in at different stages of a ‘process’ – perhaps we could offer systems approaches to help with different stages…so….

1) People doing policy do “assessment” – essentially to answer the question “What is going on here?”  At the moment very ‘evidence-led’ – using quantitative data and treating people’s views as ‘qualitative data’.  What sort of systems offer is there to a group of stakeholders setting out to say “What is going on here?”

2) People doing policy “make Decisions” – I do wonder about what a Decision really is – I mean we make tiny little incremental decisions every day so where are the really ‘big’ ones that can get the status of a capital D.  At the moment there is quite an underpinning paradigm of the ‘rationality’ of decisions even in a politically led government and local government.  What alternative models of decision making does a systems perspective throw up?  And what are the tools that can support such ‘judgement’ calls.

3) People doing policy do “impact assessment”.  This is all about making a decision with an awareness of the impact it will have and if you still have to go ahead with that decision doing what you can to mitigate negative outcomes.  This is the domain of tools like equality impact assessments; sustainability assessments; health impact assessments – predominantly a table-template to fill in with data and evidence.  So an opportunity for systems is to offer a package of tools for supporting discussions about impact – how easy that would be – multi-causal diagrams; causal loop diagrams.  Might be a good time to try that now given that a lot of local authorities are looking to develop single integrated impact assessments – to stop the ever growing list of separate, but inter-related tools.

Those are just three examples – I wonder what others there could be?

That’s enough of my rambling reflections on the day.  I said I would return to my role as a ‘speaker’ – I’ll cover that in another post.


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