Is there really a place for systems thinking in government? What we're hearing from thought leaders
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As we hurtle towards the end of 2020, now feels like a good time to stop and look back at the year that has been; a year of disruption and pain, but also innovation and opportunity. To support this process of reflection, the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation convened a series of global events under the banner of “Government After Shock”. Around the world, the Government After Shock events took different forms, and focused on different themes. But all were connected by three key questions - what do we need to leave behind, what do we want to keep, and what should we do differently?
CPI hosted three Government After Shock events from our teams across the globe - Washington, London and Melbourne. This article captures our reflections from the Melbourne event, which explored Thinking in Systems in Government. Specifically, the session focused on exploring the following:
To build on the momentum that COVID has generated around thinking in systems, what do we need to keep doing, believing and being; what do we need to leave behind, and what do we need to start doing, believing and being?
The discussion was led by Dr Seanna Davidson from The Systems School, Angie Tangaere from The Southern Initiative, Misha Kaur from the Australian Taxation Office, Professor of Systems Ray Ison from the Open University and Sam Rye from Conservation Volunteers Australia.
The thought leaders offered their views on tricky questions such as what barriers governments confront when thinking systemically, what the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed about thinking in systems, and what changes we might expect if governments around the world operated more systemically.
Presentations were insightful and thought provoking, but also deliberately short and sharp - designed as provocation and inspiration for the audience who then broke into small groups, hosted by the thought leaders, to become participants in a conversation about what might need to happen for governments to think more systemically.
The objective was to explore the idea of systems thinking as a new model for government; a new way of doing, certainly, but also a new way of thinking and being. The aim was for participants to leave the session with a clearer idea about what systems thinking means in government, about how they might begin to contribute to the change that we all want and need.
Each of the five breakout room conversations were captured on a Miro board and collated. While the event was recorded, the discussions held in the break-out groups were not; this article aims to expose some of the themes and thoughts that emerged.
What we need to keep doing, believing or being?
The first question asked participants to identify what we need to maintain to support and develop systems thinking in government. One interesting thought that emerged was the need to continue to build communities and host conversations.
COVID has fostered a new connectedness through global conversations (like this one!) which have become commonplace in 2020. In some ways, COVID has shut down the world; in other ways it has opened it up. As Sam Rye said, this year we've seen ‘more joined up thinking, more collective learning.' The plethora of webinars, workshops and communities that have emerged over the course of this year have been an unexpected positive outcome from the crisis, joining up people from across the system to have important conversations. Participants were eager to see these communities and conversations continuing into the future.
Participants wanted to see a continuation of that kind of open conversation and collaboration in government, too. Misha Kaur pointed to the importance of collaboration across government departments—the kind we have started seeing as a means of grappling with COVID-19. ‘Systems work is collaborative,' she said. ‘This can be difficult when driving change that spans multiple points of accountability. We need mechanisms that can span across silos and multiple points of accountability without people worrying about stepping on toes.'
What do we need to leave behind?
The second question asked participants to explore what we could afford to do away with in a post-COVID-19 world.
While some parts of government—and some entire communities—have come together to work more systemically in the context of COVID, many have not. COVID has revealed in many parts of government what Ray Ison termed a ‘Four S' series of failures: not being open to different situations. Not engaging systemically. Being seduced by systemic instead of systematic. And failure to practice, invent and design purposeful systems.
Participants put the failures of public sector agencies down to several key themes: rigid ways of working, the idea that we have all the answers, and practices, processes and institutions not conducive to systems thinking.
The rigidity participants referred to is manifested as an inflexibility to respond to complex situations, while practices and processes we could do without included hierarchies, transactional relationships and linear management structures.
To move forward, Misha Kaur called for a process of unlearning. ‘We [talk about the] need to let go of assumptions and mental models, but we don't talk about processes of “unlearning”. It's uncomfortable and confronting. This year has shown us we can do things differently, pioneer, and do things we didn't think we could do.'
What do we need to start doing, being or believing?
The third question was all about the new additions needed to support systems thinking in the public sector becoming more commonplace. A key theme which emerged was the importance of embracing and valuing different voices and of employing and promoting empathy and humility in how we work. As Seanna Davidson said, ‘Recognising the specific role that each of us play is often uncomfortable—our actions are not disconnected. This is particularly true for government. They're so deeply embedded in the system.'
Building on this, Angie Tangaere noted: ‘We need to encourage generosity and power sharing and consider how we are sharing power with citizens and families and communities at large. Because sharing power doesn't diminish your power. It makes you more powerful. Power is not finite.'
To support these new ways of working, we will also need new ways of measuring what success looks like. The current system doesn't reward us for building relationships, or bringing different voices to the table. How might we redefine measurement to better reflect and capture the type of work needed to support systems thinking in government?
Thinking in systems is core to CPI's vision for reimaging government. It means thinking in terms of diverse perspectives and moving to approaches that are rooted in constant learning and adaptation. What the Government After Shock series demonstrated is that individuals and teams can take small steps to explore and encourage systems thinking in government. So while COVID-19 has brought the world to its knees in 2020, there is a real opportunity to utilise systems thinking to stand back up again.