Dyfrig Williams
Aug 7 · 3 min read

At Dartington Service Design Lab’s workshop on System Dynamics I was introduced to Donella Meadows’ Iceberg Model, which helps people to think about the links between an event and its underlying issues. This includes patterns of behaviour, system structures and mental models — because we can’t change an event if we can’t change the thinking that underpins it.

When I tweeted the tool, Ben Proctor shared Pace Layers, a model that shows how systems manage change and learn. Pace Layers contain different levels (not just a clever name) that correct and stabilize each other in the system.

Stewart Brand developed the concept with Brian Eno, which means that this should be your soundtrack to this post….

Here are the layers affected by change, from fastest to slowest:

  • Fashion/art
  • Commerce
  • Infrastructure
  • Governance
  • Culture
  • Nature
Taken from https://jods.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/issue3-brand. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

It’s probably not much of a surprise to anyone that culture is slow to change. But I found the model helpful to understand influence:

“Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.”

So culture may be slow to change, but it’s where the real power is. Interestingly, Brand places the social sector as a whole under governance on an ecological level, which suggests that whilst innovation may be slow, we wield power. This will also not be much of a surprise to any member of the public who has been “done to” instead of “worked with.”


The Freeman Dyson quote in the post is useful on how time influences our concept of measurement and size:

“On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales.”

Working at the right scale seems like it should be easy, yet it’s been proven difficult. It’s through working on a small scale that public services are likely to work best in complex environments. Yet that’s not how we measure things or demonstrate effectiveness.

Matt Wyatt a.k.a. Complex Wales has written a fantastic series of posts called “The Story is the Measure.” In his post #TSisTM and 43 quintillion ways to witness… he looks at why averages are problematic . Designing one solution to fit many requirements means that you end up with a rubbish service:

“People are naturally and beautifully wonky…. when it comes to measuring complex living systems like people, a low level of specificity is the same as looking at them, from too far away.”

Chris Bolton a.k.a. whatsthepont has also written a great post on Campbell’s Law and why Outcome Measurement is a Dead Cobra:

“There’s too much going on; the system is not predictable and it is constantly changing. This means that targets and careful measurements of progress against them is pretty much pointless. You are trying to define the unpredictable (by setting targets) and measure things over which you have no control.”

Targets distort the aims of a service in a complex environment. Conventional measures are developed from what’s easy to measure, but all they do is shift that difficulty from administration into service delivery, where ineffeciency is built in because the service purpose is muddied. The delivery of large scale services reminiscent of manufacturing means that people receive services that they probably don’t want or need.

Looking at things from scale distances us from the people that we work with, as I’ve touched on before in my post on bureaucracy. Measuring what’s easy changes our governance and culture so that we’re focused on organisational needs, not people’s needs. If we challenge our assumptions around targets and measures, we can provide better services and work with people to understand what really improves their lives.

Doing better things

Learning how public services can do better things

Dyfrig Williams

Written by

Cymraeg! Music fan. Cyclist. Scarlet. Work for @researchip @ripfa . Views mine / Barn fi.

Doing better things

Learning how public services can do better things

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