NIHR SPHR PhD student Ke Zhou discusses her PhD research about how systems approaches can be used to help tackle complex public policy issues.
In social welfare and public health, we often aim to address challenging policy problems across many issues, disciplines, and, most importantly, governance departments. To successfully tackle complex questions, a variety of stakeholders often need to be engaged and help co-design the solution – but stakeholders can come with diverse interests and perspectives.
When a policy issue involves multidimensional actions or cannot be solved by ‘simple’ solutions, we often refer to it as a ‘messy’ or ‘persistent’ issue, which seems to be the features that most public policy problems are characterised with. For example, in the housing area, providing healthy and sustainable housing is still very challenging despite several public policies and regulations in place.
The research question
When I started my research path in systems dynamics, I asked myself how systems approaches in decision-making, and policy design can help tackle complex public policy issues? A systems approach focus on the interconnections, feedbacks, and complexities of the issue. Undoubtedly, housing developments are significantly impacted by policy and regulations as they decide standards, project viability, and resources. But what kind of policy design is needed, if not ‘simple solutions’?
Participatory workshop with housing associations
I attempted to understand this question in my PhD project, part of which is to engage with English housing associations through participatory systems workshops, which involves the stakeholders in the modelling process through group exercises to understand the complex causal connections. In these workshops, we brought stakeholders together online and of the connections between housing policies and their decision-making.
The most exciting result is that rather than focusing on one single housing policy, the workshop discussions suggest that the accumulative result of frequent policy changes and disjointed objectives can create disruptive challenges for the housing associations’ decision-making. Housing associations’ decision-makers can focus more on “firefighting” type issues to resolve immediate everyday tasks rather than exploring the long-term impacts of decisions on health and wellbeing.
The result shows that the traditional policy design approach focusing on the “means-end” of one single policy problem might fail to achieve its goal. Instead, a systems-based approach should consider the interconnections of multiple sets of means and ends that are closely connected around the problem in question. Organisational-level decisions and actions, causal mechanisms, and causal loops must be included for effective policy design as they decide if actions will happen.
A six-step way of applying a systems thinking approach
Here we propose a six-step way of systems thinking approach to policy design through participatory approaches:
Fig 1.Systems thinking approach in policy design
- Start with identifying target policy outputs, which can be tangible or intangible depending on the goals that participants identified. For example, the number of new homes and their quality are more visible targets, and the local community’s satisfaction with the development process and buy-in are more intangible results that need to be considered.
- Identify the pathways mapping the complexities and pathways of the policy problem and organisational-level responses. Participatory group model-building workshops can be beneficial in this process. The key is understanding how the stakeholders, and especially their decisions and actions, can contribute to the target policy issue.
- Identify the feedback loops and their interconnections, the causal loop diagram elicited from step 2 will allow critical inquiry and interaction of the causal mechanisms.
- Understand what systems behaviours are reinforced or balanced after travelling the loops and pathways. Causal loop diagrams are powerful as they highlight the importance of loops and how the change of one thing will influence itself after travelling the ‘loop’. This step help understand how the system structure and behaviour shape each other.
- Identify the systems solutions from analysing the interconnection of loops. The process can generate new learnings such as trade-offs and unintended consequences of the system.
- The final step is identifying resources to enable organisational-level actors to achieve the policy target. New variables and connections might be needed to connect the policy variables and organisational level responses. The example we discussed in the paper is that the frequent introduction of new policies will require organisational-level decision-making support, such as providing long-term goals guidelines and alternative funding sources.
Back to the initial question, what kind of policy design is needed in the public policy field, if not ‘simple solutions’? I believe that the participatory systems thinking approach is one of the most promising approaches here because it provides systems insights into the connections and consequences and allows a way to understand the policymaker’s and organisations’ diverse goals. Finding evidence and ways to talk should be equally important from a systems perspective.
TagsBlogcomplex public policy issuesDecision-makinghousing policiespolicy designPublic Healthsocial welfaresystems thinking