Embracing complexity in government — a story about gardening and thinking in systems

This opinion paper is part of City of Melbourne’s upcoming“City of the Future Event” and was originally published by the City of Melbourne.

Photo by Zoe Schaeffer on Unsplash

Imagine you’re a gardening enthusiast named Andy. You’ve noticed that the lettuce in your veggie patch is being damaged. You investigate and discover that caterpillars appear to be the cause. So, you kill the caterpillars.

Problem solved, right? Wrong.

While killing the caterpillars works in the short-term, it doesn’t work as a long-term solution. This is because the caterpillars are (unbeknownst to you) controlling a population of other insects. As such, killing all of the caterpillars results in a proliferation of other species, meaning that your solution ultimately causes more damage.

Imagine you were a different gardener. Your name is Jamie. You read different books, which taught you to think systemically about gardening. You think about the relationships between different elements of your garden and see your vegetable patch as being part of a broader ecosystem. As a result, you adopt a permaculture approach.

Rather than killing pests, you regularly rotate the plants, use varieties that are naturally more pest resistant, and you observe, learn about and shift planting times based on pest activity.

What have gardens got to do with it?

The stories above demonstrate the importance of engaging with complex systems in a way which recognises and works with that complexity.

Andy fails to do this. By viewing the damage to the lettuce as separate from other aspects of the garden, and tackling it as a discrete challenge, Andy’s solution fails because this approach doesn’t work in a complex system.

In contrast, Jamie’s approach is adaptive and respectful of the ecosystem, meaning the garden thrives.

This story centres on two gardeners. But it could just as easily be a story about two government officials — Alex and Lee.

Like our gardeners, Alex and Lee operate in complex environments. Alex oversees a program designed to reduce levels of obesity, while Lee is responsible for addressing increasing levels of homelessness.

Government officials tend to think and act like Andy — focusing on discrete elements of a challenge, designing an intervention, and then wondering why it fails.

We at the Centre for Public Impact, a BCG Foundation, believe that governments need to start thinking more in systems. Rather than envisioning the world as a giant machine to be optimised, governments need to recognise that most of the challenges we face as a society are complex, and complex challenges require nuanced, humble and nimble responses.

What does this mean for Melbourne?

In “Exploring the new world: Practical insights for funding, commissioning and managing in complexity” Toby Lowe and Dawn Plimmer offer a framework for supporting governments wanting to embrace a more systemic approach to their work.

Image from Exploring The New World by Toby Lowe and Dawn Plimmer

Breaking this diagram down, we see that any government — local, state, or national — wanting to embrace complexity and systems thinking must work towards:

  • Viewing themselves differently: 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. Governments must also invest in understanding the system — who is part of it, and how actors work together.
  • Engaging differently: Governments need to build trust with other system actors, and work to address power imbalances by understanding the importance of different perspectives and voices. A co-design approach is critical.
  • Leading differently: Leadership needs to shift from having the answers to asking the right questions. As Senge et al explain, “To be a systems leader one needs to: (1) see the larger system (2) be able to foster reflection and generative conversations (3) shift the focus from problem solving to co-creating the future.”
  • Structuring themselves differently: Silos and hierarchies don’t work well in complex systems. Government agencies embracing a systems approach need to think about how to take a cross-portfolio, cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approach to their work.
  • Working differently: Every interaction within a complex system changes the system itself. This means that governments must move away from the concept of developing ten (or even two!) year plans. Instead, they should adopt an approach of experimentation, learning and iteration. Interventions must be adaptive and responsive to the new conditions that constantly emerge.
  • Governing and measuring differently: Thinking in systems also means that governments must adopt a different approach to evidence and evaluation. As John Burgoyne writes, “Measurement should not be used for top-down control, but rather to learn about complex problems and the people experiencing them, so we can adapt and improve our approach.”

What does this look like in practice? Let’s take Alex’s challenge — obesity. An example of a systemic approach to tackling obesity can be found here in Victoria. In a number of communities in the Great South Coast region, childhood obesity was identified as a significant concern. Recognising that obesity cannot be addressed by health interventions alone, project teams were assembled including representatives from food retailers, community members, government and business. Facilitating conversations between people who didn’t normally work together helped to frame the problem more holistically. In addition, rather than designing a single intervention, a portfolio of hundreds of small initiatives has been created to tackle the multifaceted causes of obesity from many different angles.

Thinking systemically isn’t just about doing things differently; it’s more about a new way of being. Thinking in systems requires a recognition of the interconnectedness of things, an acknowledgement of the futility of prediction, and an acceptance that change is a constant state. It’s a new way for governments to understand and interact with the world, and is better served by a vision of government as “…head gardener: setting out the design, planting, tending, nurturing and, where necessary, weeding.”

This is not an easy change for governments by any means. But there are examples of it happening both in Australia and around the world, so we know it is possible. We need governments in Australia — and the world — to start experimenting with what it means to think in systems.

Join Thea, together with Cassie Robinson, Rowan Conway and Lina Patel to discuss systems change and democracy on Saturday 4 July from 3pm — 5pm AEST.



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