Opinion: government must shift focus from authority over people to stewardship of complex systems

By Thea Snow

Wednesday November 4, 2020

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If someone were to ask you, “what is the role of government?”, what do you think you’d answer?

Perhaps it might sound something like this:

  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: the organisation, machinery, or agency through which a political unit exercises authority and performs functions and which is usually classified according to the distribution of power within it; or
  • Columbia Encyclopedia: a system of social control under which the right to make laws, and the right to enforce them, is vested in a particular group in society.

Or, it might not.

While the definitions above aptly describe the dominant understanding of the role of government, a growing group of academics and practitioners (including the Centre for Public Impact) are beginning to suggest that a different approach is needed. We are advocating for a shift away from viewing government as being about authority and control and towards seeing the core role of government as being to act as stewards of complex systems.

What does system stewardship mean? Through our work with a number of public sector agencies both here in Australia, and overseas, we have discovered that there is no single definition. Government as system steward is described in many different ways including: “guiding complex systems”; taking “a less transactional, more relational approach” to engaging with service delivery partners; and thinking beyond efficiency and effectiveness to “the common good”. A very recent paper describes it as, “a new way of working that allows governments and their agents to effectively influence and steward systems from which outcomes emerge.”

Interestingly, while much of the literature around system stewardship is very new, the concept of government as steward is not. In fact, the word “government” derives from the Greek verb to steer. In its earliest incarnation, then, the role of government was described in a way which denoted a responsibility to steer (or guide or steward) citizens and communities in the best direction.

What sits at the heart of contemporary discussions around system stewardship is a recognition that government exists as part of many complex systems. For this reason, any shift to a system stewardship approach needs to be underpinned by a shift in thinking – from a linear, reductionist and control-oriented approach, to a way of understanding and interacting with the world in a way which is holistic, systemic and emergent. As I’ve written previously, governments thinking in systems need to adopt a more humble mindset; one which recognises that government sits alongside other actors in the system, rather than above or at the centre.

System stewardship in practice

One of the most common questions we hear in conversations around systems thinking in government is, “we understand the ideas, but what does this look like in practice? And how do you make it happen?” This is something I will be exploring with some of Australia and New Zealand’s leading systems thinkers in an open workshop on 17 November.

Ray Ison and Ed Straw, in their book ‘’The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking”, offer a number of examples of systems thinking in practice. They point to an example in Frome, Somerset, UK, where healthcare practitioners — realising they were unable to meet patient’s needs in the context of constrained resources — connected with community groups, peer support networks and volunteers to create rich networks of resources for patients to draw on to address their needs (which often extended beyond anything a doctor could offer anyway).  Ison and Straw note, “the Frome leaders, and this is a point we like to emphasise, had no especial grounding in systems thinking but just thought that way. Plenty of people do. You do not have to be a fully fledged systemic thinker… to work systemically.”

Another example of systems thinking in practice is evident in the work that Angie Tangaere does with The Southern Initiative (TSI), where she works with communities to create local, bespoke solutions to complex social challenges. In this context, Angie sees system-thinking and system stewardship as being intimately tied to sharing power, and building genuine connection and relationships. She explains that their ways of working at The Southern Initiative open the system up to new possibilities – “the work is always going to be good, because of the way that we work. Whānau-lead and whānau-centered, that means we will always come up with something the system never would have… For the most part, my work is whānau-led and holding systems change at the same time.”

Sam Rye, who works to support people and organisations to embrace complexity, also suggests that relationships are key to system stewardship. He writes, “the work of intervening in complex challenges is built on a myriad of methods, insights, and skills, yet none of it will have real impact without attending to the quality of relationships in the system.”

While relationships and mindsets are, without question, critical and foundational to systems thinking in government, the thoughtful application of tools can also support more effective system stewardship approaches. For example, the Australian Taxation Office recently published a “systems-led design guide”, which shares insights into how to bring a systems-led perspective to design and change. The Systems School has also just released a decision support tool for systems thinking which supports people and organisations to apply systems thinking to their own work.

COVID as a catalyst for systems stewardship

While system stewardship – as we’ve seen — is actually not a new concept, its importance as a way of understanding the role of government has become more apparent in recent times. This year, in particular, has laid bare the fact that government is part of a complex ecosystem — much of which it can’t control. The COVID pandemic has revealed the interconnectedness of things. It has demonstrated how a virus, which affects the human respiratory system, can bring the global economy to its knees. The global response to COVID has required governments around the world to think and act more systemically and has highlighted the inadequacy of linear, siloed approaches.

System stewardship can be an elusive term. However, at its core, it rests on new ways of thinking and seeing in systems. This requires new mindsets, but also new tools and ways of working.

Moving to a stewardship approach requires deep curiosity, new conversations, some courage, and passionate advocates. We all can play a role in this shift.

Join the Centre for Public Impact on 17 November at 9am AEDT for a workshop on systems thinking in government. Facilitated by five thought leaders, the event is an opportunity to have a guided discussion about the challenges and opportunities of applying systems thinking in your work.

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