Advancing Policies/Systems Change

Embrace Complexity—Think About Strategy and Systems

Resist overreliance on the most easily controlled or quickly achieved approaches, such as programs. It is a struggle, especially for diverse groups, to continue when the work is difficult and uncharted, the process is long and unpredictable, and success is uncertain. Everyone wants to feel successful, including funders and elected officials, management and staff, professionals and resident volunteers. To manage the risk of failure, there is often a temptation to set tight boundaries for the work or establish specific programs where success is more easily controlled, achieved and measured within a specific and reliable timeframe. While there is an important place for programs and other well-defined approaches, it is important to assess their contribution and impact in the larger, long-term context.

Large-scale change has no single path or panacea. Change does not typically occur through single approaches that simply replicate the same method without continuously learning more about how the system works and changes. Replicating a single policy, program, health message or facility is typically not sufficient for population-level and systems-level impact. Instead of following a single path, the journey to larger systems and culture change involves understanding problems holistically, integrating siloed work, pursuing multiple concurrent strategies, grappling with tradeoffs, and often resetting the system on a foundation of new values and priorities. Creating structures that can support this work over time and a cadre of leaders who can facilitate it provides a stronger foundation and a bigger impact than a single, quick “fix.”

The research evidence is only one measure of a strategy’s potential to work. Data and evidence are important when selecting strategies for community change. They build credibility and confidence, help to break down myths or misunderstanding, and can challenge predominant frames and ideologies that resist change. However, community context is also a vitally important determinant of whether an evidence-based strategy can be successfully adopted, implemented or sustained in a given place and time. For example, a renovated schoolyard can be highly successful at a school with a supportive principal, active parent and community groups, money for programming and political leaders who budget for maintenance. The same strategy may fail where the principal is unsupportive, parents are disengaged, gangs or drug dealers use the schoolyard and a bankrupt school district is putting the school on its closure list. It is important not to assume that research evidence will apply to every context.

Each successful change affects both the system and an advocate’s perspective about it. When thinking about systems change, it can be useful to envision an upward spiral of successive “wins” with increasing impact. After securing each win, partners often see new or greater opportunities from that fresh vantage point. This often occurs because as their joint capacity to do the work increases, it decreases the distance or difficulty of the path ahead, updates understanding, and/or clarifies appropriate next steps. In the aftermath of a win, successful partnerships often revisit their vision and values, reassess priorities and conduct new rounds of engagement, resource development and advocacy.

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