Moving from “can they?” to “how can they?”

Cassie Robinson.
Feb 7, 2019 · 6 min read

I started this blog post a year ago! And it feels like a good precursor to the blog I’m going to follow with. It also follows on from some of the previous posts, that included the Design Principles for Systems Changers, ways we thought about and tried to document learning and change on the programme, a post that might be useful for anyone trying to do change work inside an organisation and a “how to” slide deck on practices of systems change.

When we ran the first version of the Systems Changers programme we were asking the question “can the insights of frontline workers influence systems to change?” – when we realised the answer was “yes!” the programme that followed in 2017 focussed on the how. This blog shares some of the lessons we took across from the first programme to the second and that have continued to inform the programme towards its latest incarnations.

The first cohort of Systems Changers back in 2015 — I LOVE this co-created story they made about the programme.

The need to better understand the system

Finding the flex in the system

We realised that over interpretation was creating more ‘dark matter.’ Policies and legislation are easily misinterpreted. Frontline workers (like many of us) don’t always know what statutory rules are inflexible or not.

Designing for feedback

Feedback in all parts of a system is inherently valuable — as an encouragement mechanism and way of tracking progress, and as a tool for showing where change is needed. In a lot of public sector organisations the current norms err on the side of noticing ‘bad’ practice or behaviour — focusing on penalties rather than rewards. The frontline workers started designing systems that generated encouraging feedback to counterbalance this.

Data can change the story

Numbers can give us the impetus to act but are insufficient for telling us how to act. Systems Changers (and frontline workers more generally) have an opportunity to bring together “hard” and “soft” data. Frontline workers hold the stories of those both working on the frontline and of those using frontline services. Gathering the data of those stories is something that we should be designing into a frontline role more explicitly and designing good tools to make this possible for them. Alongside this, they already collect data about those accessing services, the numbers, the quantitative data — they are in a well placed position to bring those two types of data together.

The 2015 cohort in Parliament.

Effective ways of starting to change the system

Make better use of technology

“The holy grail for me is a shared information system and a map of local systems. It has been talked about for millennia but I don’t think anyone has been ambitious enough to try and implement it. Effective communication is key to multi-agency working and even a basic tool alone could have huge impact. I could also imagine about another two dozen extensions and other applications for it.” Systems Changer, 2015 Cohort

Over time many different frontline workers insights need to continually feed into shaping the system — if service design and policy making no longer have a boundary between them, there is potential in this to dissolve that boundary even further. This is definitely something that could be afforded by digital technology — however, we are a long way off that happening on this programme unfortunately!

Ensuring the system is receptive

It doesn’t work to influence change in one way or at one point in the system. The skill is in assembling and orchestrating different points of change over time. And as part of this, the wider system needs to have other receptive points or places that are able to adopt new approaches. We call this “systems-readiness” and it involves dedicating time and resource to prepare the system for change — this could be lining up commissioners, through to policy influencing.

Design the system for “whole responsibility”

“ A sort of universal responsibility toward a service user is something that few people have adopted, can adopt or can even perceive. I try and drive this point home at every opportunity but there are a number of barriers to this. A typical service user of mine can be sanctioned from the DWP, asked to leave a hostel, miss an addictions appointment and have his/her file closed, end up in hospital and be discharged to the homeless unit, left with no option but the street, arrested and charged and be sent to prison all in a 24 hour period. The action or inaction of every service within a city negatively affects another service half an hour later and in the long term (or a month later) the impact inevitably returns to all of those services (and the individual) again.Explaining this to people doesn’t seem to carry an enormous amount of weight. More needs to be done in terms of pooled budgets, joint commissioning, co-location and obligatory pathways.”

Systems Changer, 2015 Cohort

Systems prototyping

Or another way of describing it is sequencing and orchestrating experiments towards the change(s) you want to see. This kind of prototyping might involve experimenting with new roles (and the power that comes with them) or designing new HR policies, through to building parts of a new service or testing new policy for regulation. This practice still holds onto the long-term and often complex challenge of the change you want to make, whilst using prototyping as a way of asking and experimenting with questions, and to better understand the nature of the change or demonstrating what is possible.

Systems needs not just user needs

“The starting point, then, is a view of the individual that isn’t standard in economics, but should be: individual desires and standards of behaviour are often defined by experience and observation; they don’t exist in social isolation as “consumer preferences” are so often assumed to do. This simple remark has strong implications: if a person’s behaviour is conditioned by the experiences of other individuals in the cognitive neighbourhood of that person, these may be all-important in driving group interaction and group dynamics, in a way quite different from what the simple aggregation of individual ‘preferences’ would lead us to believe.”

The question, then becomes, how might we shape the experiences of a person’s cognitive neighbourhood — the community and wider contexts of which they are a part? How do we make sure that every role and “user” within the system participates in shaping it?

Doing the groundwork for long-term co-ordination and collaboration

There is inherent ambiguity in words like “coordination, collaboration, partnership.” An agreement about the centrality of relationships in creating change is not the same as knowing how to structure them so they yield transformative results. Partnership means much more than coordination or collaboration — it’s stakeholders sharing resources, outcomes & activities.

Changing the narrative of the mainstream

It’s not about only agreeing on values and principles across multiple organisations and the staff who might work together. There needs to be a public narrative that changes the status quo.

“I’m not sure this is always the problem — everyone agrees helping people in some way is a good thing. It’s perceptions of people where the problem lies.”

Systems Changer, 2015 Cohort

Designing where to embed

An unrealised ambition from the Point People was to embed Systems Changers as a ‘permanent function’ in the social sector, enabling organisations to be more of a ‘platform for developing solutions, rather than delivering services.’

Systems change can’t be done with a ‘project-based approach’ — what’s required is to build R&D capacity and mobilise movements of civil servants, practitioners and ordinary people.

After the first programme we designed the following programmes in a way that more explicitly moved from “finding the flex” through to “experimenting with change.”

Designing for scale?

Some questions we are left with:

The Point People

Blog posts from the Point People —

Cassie Robinson.

Written by

Head of Digital Grant Making at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.

The Point People

Blog posts from the Point People —

More From Medium

More on Systems Change from The Point People

More on Systems Change from The Point People

Systemic design: examples of evolving and current practice

More on Design from The Point People

Top on Medium

Ed Yong
Mar 25 · 22 min read


Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade