Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges

Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges

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11 Aug 2017
9789264279865 (PDF) ;9789264279858(print)

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Complexity is a core feature of most policy issues today and in this context traditional analytical tools and problem-solving methods no longer work. This report, produced by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, explores how systems approaches can be used in the public sector to solve complex or “wicked” problems . Consisting of three parts, the report discusses the need for systems thinking in the public sector; identifies tactics that can be employed by government agencies to work towards systems change; and provides an in-depth examination of how systems approaches have been applied in practice. Four cases of applied systems approaches are presented and analysed: preventing domestic violence (Iceland), protecting children (the Netherlands), regulating the sharing economy (Canada) and designing a policy framework to conduct experiments in government (Finland). The report highlights the need for a new approach to policy making that accounts for complexity and allows for new responses and more systemic change that deliver greater value, effectiveness and public satisfaction.

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  • Preface

    Complexity is a core feature of most policy issues today; their components are interrelated in multiple, hard-to-define ways. Yet, governments are ill equipped to deal with complex problems. Increasing automation of jobs creates new challenges for both the education and welfare systems. Ensuring a high-quality, active life for an ageing population puts pressure on the labour market, but also requires new ways of providing medical and social care. Climate change, obesity, radicalisation of social behaviours, income inequality and poverty are all challenges where causes and effects are blurred. No single public sector institution – from a solitary city to the central government – can provide adequate answers alone.

  • Executive Summary

    Governments are increasingly confronted by uncertain and complex challenges whose scale and nature call for new approaches to problem solving. Some governments have started to use systems approaches in policy making and service delivery to tackle complex or “wicked” problems in areas ranging from education to ageing, healthcare and mobility. Systems approaches refer to a set of processes, methods and practices that aim to effect systems change.

  • Systems approaches in the public sector: From theory to practice

    This chapter discusses how systems approaches can deliver value to governments. It starts by discussing why systems approaches are needed in the public sector and why they have not so far been disseminated throughout the sector. The rate of change is continuously increasing and policy makers are confronted with various complex and wicked problems. Systems approaches can be very useful for addressing these problems. Applying a systemic lens to complex problems can help map the dynamics of the surrounding system, explore the ways in which the relationships between system components affect its functioning, and ascertain which interventions can lead to better results. Systems approaches help to demonstrate how systems are structured and how they operate. However, it is not easy to transform public systems. This chapter highlights the main challenges for systems approaches within the public sector: why it is difficult to act under uncertainty, learn from systems adjustments, turn systems off and account for the speed of change in the public sector. The chapter concludes with an overview of the emerging systems thinking practice in the public sector, and explores the question of how systemic approaches have been applied to the transformation of public service delivery.

  • Towards a framework for systems transformation

    This chapter starts by highlighting the multi-method nature of new systems-based practices. It discusses how systems thinking differs and complements design thinking, and how design can be used in systemic change processes. It discusses how, under conditions of complexity and uncertainty, governments can reflect in action and work with relative precision. The chapter discusses how decision makers and public services managers can consider the kinds of challenges they face, the resources available to them and what they can expect while engaging in a rigorous problem-solving process using systems approaches. Following this discussion, the chapter identifies some key principles and tactics – people and place, dwelling, connecting, framing, designing, prototyping, stewarding and evaluating – involved in using systems approaches in the public sector. Specific practices are dependent on the context, institutional capacity, problem, timeframe and resources available to public administrations as they embark on systems change.

  • System approaches in practice: Case studies

    This chapter provides an in-depth examination of four systemic change case studies from diverging contexts. It analyses how systems approaches have been applied in practice to: prevent domestic violence (Iceland), protect children (the Netherlands), regulate the sharing economy (Canada) and design a policy framework for conducting experiments in government (Finland). The case studies provide an overview of the context of the change process, steps to initiate and carry out systems change, and its impacts. The chapter highlights the complexity in terms of problems examined and government levels involved, and the difficulties of working across silos. The cases show that systems approaches can be very beneficial in redefining government outcomes and structuring change, but that transformation also requires various resources, such as flexible finances, time, political coverage, systems thinking capabilities, and independent brokers. The empirical examination also reveals the ongoing need of systems thinking and iterative processes as implementing systems change invariably unearths unforeseen effects, system barriers highlighting the need for meaningful measurement of outcome-oriented change.

  • Conclusions

    This section is divided into two parts. The first provides an overview of the main conclusions drawn from the case studies and how they link to the analytical framework presented in the report. The second discusses the remaining challenges and opportunities arising from the introduction of systems approaches in the public sector. It also distils advice to policy makers concerning how and when to use system approaches, and the level of understanding required to drive successful system transformation processes.

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  • Expand / Collapse Hide / Show all Abstracts Annexes

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    • Definitions
    • A brief history of systems approaches

      Complex problems are not new and efforts to simplify them in order to make them “manageable” have long been on the agenda of policy makers and academics, and especially systems thinkers. While there are several streams of systems thinking (general systems theory, cybernetics, systems dynamics, etc.), there are thousands of different streams of “systems thought” with hundreds of different methods and techniques. Today, many policy studies have moved to apply methodological pluralism (choosing the method(s) based on the problem at hand) (Payne, 2006) when using systems approaches. However, it is important to understand the background of these different approaches before applying or insourcing analyses. No method is perfect and systems thinking and other similar methodologies should be understood as one of many tools available to governments.

    • Case study methodology

      Systems approaches are rarely labelled as such. They tend to emerge out of a convergence of dynamics, such as inspired leadership, intractable challenges, access to competent stakeholders/partners and sometimes an unusual funding situation. The framework of systems transformation outlined in Chapter 2 has been used as a general approach to both case selection (identify cases where these processes are evident) and case analysis (understanding how these principles were applied in practice). The case study process in this report focused on understanding how a problem was framed or reframed so that a new solution and possibly methodology could emerge, and on the tactics or actions that were designed and executed with an eye toward systemic impact.

    • Interviews conducted for this study
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