The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking Q & A

Authors Ray Ison and Ed Straw’s answers to questions posed from participants in their recent book launch webinar.

People and governance

How can we enable key players in the ‘system’ (including civil servants) to influence changes in public policy and governance and thereby contribute to the much needed renewal that Ison and Straw are advocating?

Ray: From my work in UK, Australia and South Africa in particular, (I’ve discovered that) all governance systems are heavily influenced by English (Westminster) traditions. I have reached the view that the structures of what I call vertical governance (despite many well-meaning people) cannot be overcome in the current design. Hence the rules have to be changed, which change power dynamics between the vertical and horizontal arms of governance (i.e. the state and civil society). In the process what are perceived to be command/control/levers have to change and policy and action has to be repurposed for effectiveness rather than party political power (parties are part of the problem).  The discourse in Oz about co-design offers scope if the right rules operate as well as the right praxis – if not, co-design becomes manipulation.

One practice current civil servants might try more of is to see policy development, implementation and evaluation as if it were a co-learning system and open to design and redesign as it unfolds, i.e. break out of the trap of one-way delivery (that doesn’t deliver). See Chapter 5 in our book for some examples.

How might we change that pathways into politics and de-professionalise it to (a) make it a more appealing path for more people and (b) avoid the story Ray told?

Ray: Institutionalise more systemic inquiries around complex, wicked problems – co-inquire with citizens – build over time a strong and large cohort of citizens experienced in participating in governance experiments. Perhaps also require politicians to have had prior work experience in non-state sectors prior to being able to be endorsed (hand pre- selection to citizen’s juries rather than party hacks?). Abandon PMQ’s in favour of judicial style moots around issues of the times.

How can governance more effectively capture all people’s voice, not just the practiced powerful ones?

Ray: See rules needed to prevent preferential lobbying (Chapter 3); see our example of the Irish referendum process on abortion reform.  Build deliberative processes into our governance system beginning with constitutions and staff them with facilitators/enablers – systems thinkers, community development professionals etc.

The main answers to these three questions come in the form of structural reform (in the sense that a system can only do what is structured to do), institutional innovation and praxis reform – building of systems thinking in practice capability. Our book provides examples – but offers no blueprints and what is done has to be the product of contextual, systemic design and investment.

Ed: Remember: all systems thinkers are part of an intellectual counter-revolution. Keep revolting.

System of governing, governance structures and models

How do you create a bottom-up governance model to enable this change to governance?

Ray: Invest in social learning and support its ongoing development and capability building by rules in a revised constitution (e.g. Chile this week) and excellent process design and learning through feedback e.g. Allan, C., Ison, R., Mumaw, L., Colliver, R., Mackay, M., Perez-Mujica, L., & Wallis, P. (2020). Jumping off the treadmill: transforming NRM to systemic governing with systemic co-inquiry. Policy Studies 41, 350-371. 

How do we break down the existing cemented in structures which seem insurmountable and make sure marginalised groups are proactively engaged in decision making?

Ray: Invent processes that begin with active listening to affected citizens – build co-design possibilities; invest in and enable civil society organisations; take control of tax concessions etc for civil society organisations including a national broadcaster away from political parties and replace them with a National Register and vetting function as well as recourse to legal challenges if needed.  Harness the resources all Oz governments spend on Royal Commissions to effect better governance through follow-up and addressing the question of who learns?

Can we apply the French method of Citizen’s Congresses to the Australian situation?

Ray: I am assuming you mean the Citizens Convention for Climate? I am unfortunately not familiar with its design and functioning; in theory it seems a good thing. But does it have teeth in the governance system? Are the president and the Parliament obliged to act on its recommendations – is there a legal recourse if they don’t? It would be worth looking at this innovation and comparing it with the Uk’s climate change committee (which we refer to in the book). We need to be wary of innovations that pay lip service to citizen engagement – leaving those involved feeling participated.

Ed: I caution anyone who sees ‘policy’ as an objective. In our book, we talk of the end-state fallacy and the view that solutions can be ‘policised’ into existence. The world is littered with failed policies. It’s a process that can obscure/excuse/degrade. Take care!!

Alongside acting at the personal and immediate scale, there is talking and taking every opportunity to talk about the major impediment, which is the system of governing as embodied in the constitution. So many of the issues raised by the questions can be traced back to the constitution and the way it drives behaviour and practice. In The Financial Times of 15/10/20 its US editor wrote a long piece explaining that their constitution has to change – in a big way. He also set out what could happen if it does not – continual decline and even breakup and civil war, (I just read that an opinion poll records 40% of Americans as believing civil war is possible). Constitutions matter far more that most people realise. In the US it is good to see that the website for the National Constitution Centre is now their third most visited museum website. I don’t know how much all this is appreciated in Australia – it’s almost non-existent in the UK. And that’s why we have to talk about constitution to gradually promulgate that appreciation.

Unless and until the biosphere is placed at the centre of the governance model in the constitution, then the planet will continue to degrade for human habitation – and a lot faster than most expect. With the biosphere given this prominence, then carbon taxes, the end of deforestation, transparency in extraction and its impacts, real protections for fish and wildlife, an end to predominantly meat based diets, etc will follow. Without this, we will fiddle while Rome burns/floods/sinks/plagues/starves.

The two other major constitutional changes are to add to the three existing branches of the legislature, executive and judiciary, the citizen and feedback branches. Again our book describes these and here are the 26 principles of systemic governance that we set out there as the basis for new constitutions:

Principles for Systemic Governing

Remember: all systems thinkers are part of an intellectual counter-revolution. Keep revolting.

Civil Society

How to make civil society aware of the power that it has got?

Ray: Create opportunities for them to experience their power – begin at school.

How do we enable civil society realise the power for the common good that ‘we’ have? and How can civil society ever have the same power as wealthy vested interests and the biased media?

Ray: We have to change the institutional arrangements – the rules of the game that is governing. It begins with constitutions and cascades throughout. Build better narratives about valuing difference – and creating value from emergent innovation.

Place-based questions

Listen to Bob Carr’s response to a question (in the video of the event here) in which he refers to place based policy development. See also the practices of the Charity/Foundation Lankelly Chase and the work in Bourke, NSW carried out by Dusseldorp.

Added here is a podcast on how Lankelly Chase work and authorising change at the ground level. Julian Corner’s (LK CEO) opening remarks are well worth listening to.

What suggestions do you have for a potentially new Scottish Constitution (after independence) to disincentive systemic corruption?

Ray: Happy to talk more about this and provide some contacts – my experience and suggestions are partly made here: Ison, R.L. & Watson, D. (2007), Illuminating the possibilities for social learning in the management of Scotland’s water. Ecology and Society 12(1): 21

Ed: A new Scottish Constitution needs to add the Citizen and Feedback branches and place the Biosphere at the centre of its governance model. Devolution to local government should be specified, alongside provision for substantive local funding of local government, and deeming all councillors to be independent. Further description for a model constitution can be found here in infographics:

And also here in words.

How do we manage a river System (Murray-Darling) via a State-based structure?

A classic case of on-going framing failure (see book). Am happy to discuss at any time – can I refer you to: Wallis, P., Ison, R.L. and Samson, K. (2013) Identifying the conditions for social learning in water governance in regional Australia.  Land Use Policy 31, 412-421 and Wallis, P. & Ison, R.L. (2011) Appreciating institutional complexity in water governance dynamics: a case from the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia, Water Resources Management 25 (15) 4081-4097.

How and what to do?

What small thing(s) can we try today, tomorrow or this week in order to get started on the big, complex task of change, in a way that sheds some light on the task of system change?

Ray: Draw attention of those around you to the system as you perceive it and its failings. Challenge attempts to do the wrong thing righter.  Initiate conversations about purpose.

Ed: What individuals can do in their work and life circumstances depends on context. For example, if a civil servant is working in a culture and system that essentially is fixed – and most are – then attempts to break out from this mould will be akin to banging ones head against a brick wall. However, in some organisations a sufficiency of open/frustrated minds may exist to build a coalition for change.

A friend had an experience of this this morning in the arts world, where her paper on how to do participation in the arts has found others, with power, who want to change the bureaucratic nature of the Arts Council of Wales. Here is an opportunity to seed in applied knowledge and successful practice. This gives others the space and ammunition to challenge (softly) the established mindsets. It will take time, but with COVID shaking the established order, this is a good time to start.

Similar opportunities can exist in communities where, for example, some appreciation exists that political parties are the problem not the solution in local government. Joining with others to field independent candidates can lead to a council becoming independent-led rather than political party dominated. This can lead on to innovations in developing the local economy and community through enabling and privileging local suppliers.

These and many other immediate ways of, in effect, educating people around us and changing practice are possible.

Remember: all systems thinkers are part of an intellectual counter-revolution. Keep revolting.

We often don’t have a shared language due to climate change being political. Groups often want the same outcome eg recovered/ resilient communities. How can systems framing help diffuse the climate change language barrier & build a common language?

Ray: Start by listening to what people have to say – understand their aspirations and purpose – mirror back the language you hear and engage in joint systemic inquiry/social learning so that understandings and practices move towards concerted action.

What are examples of processes for enabling awareness and discussion of these deeper ways of being (values, worldview, etc?) and their implications within groups of people, so that everyone might be open to operating in a systemic learning process?

This is just one example of how to start out – in a particular set of situations – but the design principles apply more broadly: Ison, R.L., Collins, K.B., Bos, J.J. & Iaquinto, B. (2009) Transitioning to Water Sensitive Cities in Australia: A summary of the key findings, issues and actions arising from five national capacity building and leadership workshops. NUWGP/IWC, Monash University, Clayton.

How do we prepare for a very long-term future (a few hundred years)?

Ray: Invent new institutions for governing of social purpose; the biosphere and the technosphere ASAP – see our book.

I am interested in how the boundaries work – my experience sometimes is the boundaries need to be drawn tightly to enable action at a level that people can deal with. Otherwise overwhelm can stop any action or thought.  I work at catchment level for the Parramatta River.

Thea shared in the chat: At CPI, we talk about thinking systemically, but acting locally.