‘Good’ systems, for whom?

Sarah Schulman, Kennisland – 11.04.2013

Sarah Schulman, an expert member of the SIX community with a background in Co-design processes–and a visiting scholar at Kennisland in the Netherlands–takes a long look at the systems that structure–and constrain–our lives and daily actions, as well as the processes, politics, and people that create our shared idea of a ‘good’ system.

  • By 9am, Katie had dealt with 4 systems.
  • Her partner, Nick, was out drunk with his mates.
  • Her 10 kids were in various states of undress. If they were even awake.
  • The social worker was in the driveway, getting ready to drop-in.
  • The school attendance officer was on the phone, asking about her older son’s whereabouts.
  • The pharmacy was texting to confirm her methadone appointment.
  • Katie just wanted a hot shower. And some peace and quiet.

I spent a week living with Katie and her 10 kids, in a spotless 3-bedroom house, in a leafy Australian suburb. From the inside, systems weren’t the abstract entities that descriptors like “dynamic” “interconnected” and “complex” seem to suggest. Systems were groups of people clumsily interacting.

  • They were a mum, dads, kids, aunties, uncles, mates, grandparents.
  • They were clients, social workers, psychologists, police officers, managers, policy advisors, ministers.
  • They were students, parents, teachers, a principal, school attendance officers, education consultants.
  • They were a patient, a pharmacist, a drug supplier, doctors, health care administrators, ministers.

Few of these people were getting what they needed, or wanted. Katie needed support from Nick. The kids needed attention. The aunties and uncles wanted to know what to do. The social workers needed to ensure the kids’ safety. The family wanted to stick together. The policy advisors wanted to avoid a headline. The teachers needed the kids to stop getting into trouble. The principal needed the kids to come to school. The pharmacist wanted Katie to show up.

We could diagnose these systems as strained & stressed; inefficient & ineffective; even perverse and pathologizing. There’s no shortage of solid analysis about the failures of our systems, particularly our public ones, clearly shown by the other blogs in the Nesta series. John Seddon identifies “corporate foci of targets and costs.” Jesper Christiansen talks about the lack of “coordination” “integration” and “continuity”. Halima Khan uses words like “out of synch” and “disenabling”. Zaid Hassan names”expert-planning” and responding to “symptoms” versus “root causes.” Alice Casey describes “budgetary silos” “risk aversion” and a “deficit orientation.”

To read the full article, please follow the link to Nesta website, where this item was originally posted as part of their Systemic Innovation: A Discussion Series.