Systems change

Complexity is a core feature of most development issues today, yet governments are ill-equipped to deal with these problems on their own. Governments that have spent decades perfecting systems to successfully manage complicated problems (such as banking regulation, trade treaties), now face a world of complex problems. A complicated problem is one that is ultimately predictable with sufficient analysis and modeling. Complex problems on the other hand are inherently unpredictable. They are frequently called wicked or messy because it is difficult to assess the true nature of the problem and therefore how to manage it. Rather than having discrete parts bound together in linear relationships, complex problems are emergent: they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Wicked problems such as poverty, gender inequality, service failure and under-investment – where causes and effects are blurred and no clear solution exists – have become rife. No single organisation can tackle these issues alone. Traditionally, policy makers and development projects have addressed problems through discrete interventions layered on top of one another. However these may just shift consequences from one part of the system to another, or address symptoms while ignoring causes.

Systems approaches help policy makers confront, in a holistic way, problems that span administrative and territorial boundaries. They call for constant adjustment throughout the policy cycle, with implications for how institutions, processes, skills and actors are organized. Because they focus on outcomes, systems approaches require multiple actors within and across levels of government to work together. In order to effect systems change, actors must develop a vision for a desired future outcome, a definition of the principles according to which that future system will operate, and a set of interventions that will start to change the existing system into the future system.

Changing entire systems in the public sector is difficult, in part because they cannot be turned off, redesigned and restarted; public services must be continuously available. Systems approaches can help navigate this difficult transition by allowing new practices to be experimented with and rolled out while core processes are still running.

“Independent brokers” can play a critical role to facilitate these value debates and create a level playing field for change. Think tanks, government ‘labs’, and certain types of civil society organisations can help to change systems because they are seen by all parties as a nonpartisan participant. They need to be able to challenge the modus operandi of public sector institutions, while maintaining the trust and collaboration of partners to create the conditions for introducing experimentation in government.

I4ID provides a model for bringing different actors together around a common vision, and creating space for better evidence and analysis, collective problem solving, experimentation and learning, and is encouraging other ‘policy entrepreneurs’ in Tanzania to try such systems approaches.