ANZSOG & CPI Present… Thinking in Systems

Image courtesy of ANZSOG

The Centre for Public Impact has partnered with The Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), a global leader in education and government-focused research relevant to the public sector.

Together, we are hosting a webinar series focusing on how governments should and can be better for citizens; something we call “reimagining government”. We recently held our second installment, focusing on “thinking in systems”. Thinking in systems is a growing movement of thinkers, academics and practitioners who argue that governments and decision-makers need to move away from linear and siloed approaches to problem-solving, but instead see a problem as part of a wider system. It is only by addressing the context and interconnectedness of our world that we can hope to deliver positive change. 

We at CPI, together with ANZSOG, are proud to be playing our part in providing spaces for these critical discussions.

Download the webinar chat summary

The Panel Discussion

The three panellists, CPI’s own Adrian Brown, Luke Craven from the Australian Tax Office, and Deborah Blackman from the University of New South Wales,) were hosted in conversation by James Button. 

The discussion started with the question:

What is systems thinking?

Defining systems thinking

Our panel all offered definitions or approaches on systems thinking. Adrian Brown, from CPI offered an interesting analogy:

If you are on a desert island and found a mechanical clock. You can take the clock apart and break it down to individual pieces, but know that when you put it back together you’ll be able to tell the time.

Now imagine you’re on the same desert island and you see a cat. If you take the cat apart you won’t be able to put it back together to know that it purrs. All the bits of the cat work together.

Professor Blackman suggested that a good way to think about systems thinking is it attempts to look at the whole, and not just one piece of the puzzle.

“For example, if you wish to get more people into work from unemployment support, rather than just looking at their lack of a job as the problem to solve, all sorts of other factors may be playing a part, like poor housing, lack of skills, language barriers,” she said.

To fix unemployment you need to look at a person’s whole lived experience.

Luke Craven from the Australian Tax Office offered a slightly different frame in that systems thinking isn’t a binary choice – it’s not systems thinking or nothing. We often need to isolate problems from the wider whole to fix them, but equally need to work in a wider whole to fix the single problem.

Is systems thinking gaining traction as an idea?

The panel all suggested that systems thinking has been gaining support, but so far, there have been few national level examples of it being put clearly into practice. The successful examples so far have been isolated, and mainly at the sub-national level, and it’s perhaps fair to suggest that the real innovators and risk takers have been at local level.

Adrian Brown gave examples from Australia (for example the Latrobe Valley Authority) and in the approach to government taken by the Finnish government to societal issues, which is based more on innovation and experimentation. However one of the paradoxes of systems thinking is that it demands that successful approaches from other systems be examined closely for suitability, not rigidly applied in a different context.

The moderator asked the question:

It feels as if the take up has been slow, why?

Luke Craven’s response was that this is a yes and no answer. Systems thinking as an approach has been building support and examples are growing from local government level. But, in Luke’s view, systems thinking is hampered by a lack of strong storytelling. Systems thinking breaks the mould because it’s more about learning than measuring outcomes and if your framework is measuring outcomes then systems thinking needs a strong narrative to break through.

Luke continued with this line of thinking by suggesting that scaling up has been a problem. Most examples are local and getting big governments to take that first risk is a challenge.

COVID, Crises and Systems Thinking

No discussion would be complete without mentioning how the COVID-19 pandemic might help or hinder the adoption of systems thinking, particularly as the fact COVID-19 is simultaneously a health, political, social and economic crisis, that essentially requires systems-based approaches.

The panel felt that crises often can speed up shifts in thinking, but Adrian Brown also felt that the nature of the COVID crisis meant that it had tapped into many of the problems of existing structures, and shown they were lacking.

How do we break through the political agendas and power structures that block change?

Professor Blackman firmly agreed that one of the barriers to change right now is how politics and power structures are set up, and work in practice. Aspiring politicians, ministers, and civil servants all have their own ambitions, and often competing agendas. This means it takes a brave person to challenge the existing paradigm.

She said she had worked with local communities that were shining examples of systems thinking, but only because there were senior figures who were able to keep the changes on the down low and not risk disapproval from above.

At the more senior level, New Zealand is pioneering a new approach that breaks down ministerial silos and forces ministers to sit together on cross-cutting issues such as climate change in a “board of ministers”.

What next for systems thinking?

Luke Craven said some kinds of thinking are so entrenched in how we develop policy, such as payment by results and outcomes measurements that systems thinking proponents would need to develop alternatives before they could deliver real change.

“The electoral cycle is a clear limitation and is fixed. We have to recognise there are limits to systems thinking. The demands of accountability of our elected representatives is another. But we can bit-by-bit demonstrate that this approach is less risky than imagined,” he said.

Adrian Brown said that humility was a crucial aspect of both systems thinking itself, and also changing the current paradigm to include more systems thinking.

We need to recognise that we cannot control everything and fix everything. We need to be humble and bring others into the discussion in order to adopt a systems thinking approach.

There are four more webinars in the Reimagining Government webinar series, ranging from “relationships first”, to “sharing power” and “lead with humility”. Each webinar allows participants to listen to the panel and discuss the ideas in small groups. If you are interested in being part of this conversation, register here to participate:

Register for the 'reimagining government' webinars

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