Systems Thinking in the Public Sector

Africa: What Can Evaluators Learn From Complexity Science and Systems Thinking?

For the past few years, I have worked at a non-profit legal services provider. When I was reading the article about systems thinking that we were assigned for this class, I couldn’t help but think that although the idea made sense for information systems, it would never work in the some industries (namely in the legal field). Given the experience that I have working with lawyers, I couldn’t picture them ever looking at a problem holistically instead of drilling into the details because they are all very process-thinking oriented.

However, this article kind of  served as a counter argument to my thinking. Here are public policymakers that are using systems thinking to integrate economic, social and environmental growth into a single ‘map of development.’ I think it’s cool that they were able to use systems thinking despite the fact that there is probably a significant amount of constraints when writing public policy, including (I’m assuming) a pretty strict budget. This article proves that systems thinking can be applied virtually any industry if you are willing to shift your mindset.

4 Responses to Systems Thinking in the Public Sector

  • I believe that systems thinking in the public sector is very crucial to its success because the public sector has problems whose solutions are not obvious. Since the public sector is supposed to proactively service the public and provide them with solutions, the public sector has to take into account many actors and has to help those actors see the “big picture”. Often times the issues that the public sector tackles are issues where an action affects the environment surrounding the issue. Thus, if the public sector does not use system thinking, it will lead to ineffective solutions.

  • I am going to jump off of what Andre said in regards to the statement “Often times the issues that the public sector tackles are issues where an action affects the environment surrounding the issue.” When thinking of Systems Thinking I can not help but think about Newton’s third law of physics “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I find this to be the case in any line of work where you are providing a solution for customers, business’s, or a community. Like you said Erin, “systems thinking can be applied virtually any industry if you are willing to shift your mindset.” I believe this to be very true because no matter what the situation is the solution you come up with will effect more than just the issue at hand.

  • I agree that Systems Thinking can be applied to just about any industry, and to good use too. It’s imperative to be able to understand the interrelation between all actors and functions in a plan. If you can’t do this, then you cannot be certain what will happen. In the case of the public sector, I agree with Andre in that it would greatly benefit from a Systems Thinking approach. It’s very easy to think only about little parts of the bigger picture and try to get those parts to work, without much thought as whether it will work well with the rest of the system. One change in a part of the public sector can create changes in other parts of the public sector, and if no one knows what those changes are, then that can be a recipe for disaster. So while Systems Thinking is definitely more synonymous with IT, it is definitely well-suited for anything in which the solution has many interrelated parts and is not obvious.

  • You bring up a very interesting point – lawyers are generally not the type of people you think of to do systems thinking. That’s because lawyers, and others with a legal profession, work within a system that doesn’t change (the written laws). Unless, of course, you’re a policymaker, as you mentioned.

    However, this raises another question: is there an industry in which a systems thinking approach would not be relevant or improve upon a process-oriented approach? Just because legal workers don’t currently have that thought process doesn’t mean that they can’t. I’m reminded of the movie Gone Girl, where Tyler Perry’s lawyer character immediately advises that for Nick to have a defense, they need to change the public perception of him. Though this is complete fiction, I don’t think it’s worth disregarding. A lawyer who accounts for agents outside of the written laws, for the environments that are dynamic and constantly changing, is the one who will have the most effective “solution”. This is systems thinking, directly applied.

    I believe that systems thinking is always relevant, no matter the industry. The world has few simple problems, and systems thinking is the only truly effective way of addressing the complex problems.

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