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Working with Changes: Systems Approaches to Public Challenges

Sinnergiak Social Innovation (UPV/EHU) attended the OECD Workshop titled Working with Changes: Systems Approaches to Public Challenges in order to promote and facilitate the Public Sector Innovators Network of the SIC project. The workshop was organized by the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) of the OECD.

This note has been written by Igone Guerra (UPV/EHU)

How systems can enhance public policies and service delivery through more user-tailored and adaptive governance processes? The 28th February, the Observatory of Public Sector Innovation (OPSI) aligned with the European Unión Horizon 2020 framework, led an event on this issue. The event delivered a set of plenary presentations, panel discussions and participatory workshops, bringing together a variety of participants from different sectors and areas of work –from civil servants and local government policy advisors to researchers- leveraging the experience of both public sector managers and systems thinkers.

The event offered an opportunity to discuss challenges, chances and tactics for system change in the public sector and to define the future agenda for the OPSI in this field.

The morning session was organized jointly was held as with the OECD’s New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) initiative.

In the first panel of the day, a great variety of themes regarding the challenges that public policies face today were discussed in the following topics:

Complexity of our societies. Our societies today are characterized by an increasing complexity. We live in a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), where the traditional model of policymaking is no longer appropriate. More and more actors are leveraging technology to have an impact on the world increasing the complexity even more.


Different role for Government. In the past, Governments could tackle problems through regulation and provision of guidance, but in the current days, public administrations need to incorporate integrated actions and be continuously engaged with a diversity of problems. This new approach should be based on a common understanding of the system as a whole, moving from the old mental models that shaped the public administration to new ones, in the light of the current challenges we are facing today.  This implies that we need to work across silos and boundaries and to incorporate new stakeholders into policymaking.


Cultural Change for the Public Sector. There is a need to shift from a “well-known” situation (Under control) to a stranger one (uncertainty situation) in which planning, success or a clear division of responsibilities, as we used to understand them, do not serve to manage new challenges. In this new world, civil servants need new skills, new competences and new knowledge, where the opportunity to experiment, test and learn from doing plays a key role.


Group discussions: Learning how systems change works from selected case studies

This session provided workshop participants with the opportunity to learn about systems change approaches and tactics from concrete experiences which have been documented as part of the OECD work. During four parallel break-out sessions moderated by experts, participants were split into four groups to respectively learn from some of the people involved with the four case studies:

  • Regulating the Sharing Economy (Canada)
  • United against domestic violence (Iceland)
  • Experimental Policy Design (Finland)
  • A purpose-driven child protection system (Netherlands)


Group Exercises: Tactics for System Change

The session revolved around the reflection on the tactics and approaches to initiate systems change as well as the ways of transferring to other contexts.

Justin Cook, one of the authors of the report, presented the 10 main Principles of System Change:






  1. The End of Known Knowns
  2. The Complexity Gap
  3. Proximate Failure, Distant Impact
  4. Fuzzy FrontsOpen Ends
  5. Beware of Toolkits

Mens et Manus

  1. Contextual Variance
  2. If You Know Everyone in the Room, You Are Going to Fail
  3. Work Both Hard and Soft Constraints
  4. Manage Expertise


Justin advised that the products of systems design should focus on:

  • A vision for an alternative future.
  • The principles that govern that future.
  • A portfolio of interventions that can be undertaken.

Participants were then again split into four groups and were asked to consider the issue of Ageing from a systems perspective. Participants were asked to think about:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What are the opportunities and benefits?
  3. What is our vision for ageing in 2050?

In the final session of the day, a closing panel summed up some of the discussions and shared some insights. The closing session concentrated on the role of the OECD in this new scenario.

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