What do we mean by systems change?
Community of practice meeting, November 2022
In our most recent community of practice, we unpicked how people approach place-based systems change and the language they use to describe it. The aim of the meeting was to help anyone trying to understand or explain place-based systems change.
We’ve found that ‘taking a systems-change approach’ means different things to different people. At its worst, it can feel overly academic and exclusionary; too theoretical to be practical.
To engage with a concept like systems change on a practical level, we’ve found it is helpful to identify a starting point or a ‘way in’, so we have set out four approaches to systems change. In our experience, people usually start their systemic change journey from one of four places:
- Root causes
- A single organisation
In reality, we know systems change is all of these approaches, but this model can help build understanding of where different people are coming from when they talk about their ‘systems change’ work.
How do we approach systems change?
While individuals in the community had often been drawn to systems change approaches because of an ambition to go deeper into targeting the root causes of issues, or to better understand the complexity of the issues they work on, in practice the most common entry route for systems change across the community was collaboration.
Practitioners felt it was common knowledge that a lack of horizonal, collaborative working was a critical issue in services provision – and key to providing more person-centred services in a place-based context. Members of the community also said they have found funders are increasingly interested in funding collaborative work and are recognising that collaboration requires additional time and resource to be effective.
Equally, place-based practitioners felt that the increase in funding collaborative work often reflected a funder perception that collaboration across services would equal systems change. Whereas practitioners saw collaboration as an entry point for systems change. This tended to force practitioners to focus on partnership building and collaborative service delivery, without having the resources to map out the complexity of the system and dig into understanding the root causes of the issues they aim to target.
For national charities taking a place-based approach to systems change, they felt that this was motivated by an ambition to ‘draw a boundary around’ complex issues. They saw building collaborative relationships across a place as core to their systems change practice.
Similarly, some funders have found that while their initial entry route for systems change was a desire to understand the root causes of issues, it had led them to fund more collaborative working with the aim of enabling providers to make long-term changes to their local systems together.
The challenges of a purely collaborative approach to place-based systemic change
Taking a systems-change approach is hard. It often requires a shift in ways of working that rejects traditional processes and incentives.
Both service delivery organisations and funders in the community identified some common challenges of a purely collaborative approach:
- Understanding the local system: Community members reflected that their systems-change practice could benefit from taking more time to develop a deep understanding of what the issues are in the system, and how they are producing negative outcomes before trying to work collaboratively on systems change. They highlighted that allocating time and funding to up front research before any systems change initiative was critical.
- Defining the ambitions for systems change: While systems-change practice aims to move away from siloed thinking, community members also felt that taking more time to define collective ambitions for change, building on a deep understanding of the issues in a local system could improve their work. Delivery organisations, in particular, felt this step was often missed because short funding timelines forced collaboratives to jump to thinking about how they will work together, over thinking more deeply what they want to achieve.
- The importance of fostering the conditions for systems change: In a context where both historic ways of working and current incentives encourage siloed working towards short-term changes, funding collaboration is unlikely to move beyond targeting the symptoms of issues. It is important to build the conditions and space for adaptive and relational ways of working. This may be through altering governance structures, expected delivery timelines, or reporting requirements.
The meeting ended with a discussion about the way describe and talk about our place-based systemic change work.
Language can perpetuate power dynamics that hold back systemic working, or it can help build clarity and consensus for people trying to understand or explain place-based systems change. In our next blog, we’ll share some challenges and ideas about that.
About the community of practice
The community of practice is open to place-based practitioners, working at any scale, and funders of place-based work. Find out more about the community.
The next meeting takes place on 1st March, 12:30-14:00
Place-based systems change work requires a focus on the long-term, a deep understanding of the local system and listening and adaptation as that system changes. At the next community of practice meeting, we will come together to discuss how to maintain a long-term systemic view during an ongoing crisis.
On 1 March we’ll share everyone’s reflections on how to maintain that long-term systemic view when the cost-of-living crisis is making it increasingly challenging to think beyond delivery and response.