When we’re talking about workforce issues, what do we mean by “systems change?”
There’s a lot of definitions of “systems change” out there. We use it as shorthand to describe strategies that are informed by a systems thinking mindset. Systems change is about intentionally seeing and then changing the dynamics around a particular problem in order to solve it. These strategies focus on complex problems made up of multiple interrelated problems and stakeholders.
One of the National Fund’s five solutions is to “change systems for improved outcomes.” Our focus is primarily on labor market systems, but our network partners find that adjacent and overlapping systems like education, transportation, housing, and childcare may be integrally tied to how the labor market functions.
What is a systems thinking mindset?
It’s a way of seeing the world that moves beyond linear connections, for seeing interrelationships and patterns of change, not just static snapshots. System thinkers help stakeholders look deeper into a problem’s interconnected and interrelated nature.
In the Cleveland region, for example, it turns out that two interrelated issues underlie workforce problems and strongly correlate with the race of workers: economic development policy about where jobs are created and the public transportation system. It took some research and analysis to tease that out, and our partner in the region has launched a competition to source local innovative solutions.
What are the conditions necessary to change systems?
First of all, systems are dynamic and always changing, even without intentional strategies to improve outcomes, so that’s not the best way to think about it. However, one of the most important conditions for addressing a systemic problem is having a full understanding of how you are part of the system and how your behavior influences the system.
Our network partner in Syracuse, Work Train, strived to develop a strong relationship with the new mayor and a broad network of diverse stakeholders. When several large capital projects materialized, the mayor tapped Work Train to convene contractors, unions, and training providers to set goals for racial diversity of construction workers. By knowing how they themselves fit into a system, Work Train translated their strong network of relationships into influence that would advance racial equity in the construction industry.
But if the system is everything and we’re all a part of the system, then what isn’t systems change?
Systems change is not just about tweaking various components of the system – bureaucrats do that every day, and yet the dynamics of the system stay the same and problems persist. Systems change is about intentionality. The goal is resolving a particular problem.
Here’s an example: The Atlanta metro region has five public workforce boards. Over the past decade, the legislature had moved the boards between community colleges and economic development agencies in an effort to better align the region’s workforce strategy. Despite these changes, the local workforce system still struggled to reach geographically isolated communities. Rather than focusing the structure of the system as the problem – as the legislature had done – CareerRise, our network partner in Atlanta, focused on addressing enrollment processes to improve outcomes of the geographically isolated, regardless of whether the structure of the public workforce system changed or not. By focusing on resolving the actual problem, Atlanta impacted what they cared about most – more and better training for the underserved.
Ok. So, based on that observation, where do people start with understanding the system? Don’t we have to define it?
For workforce practitioners, any systems change strategy comes from talking about actual workforce problems and potential solutions. Using tools like disaggregated data analysis, mapping, and stakeholder interviews, you can define the boundaries of the system and determine what needs to change to achieve your objectives.
In Baltimore, in-depth research revealed that some state and local policies effectively criminalize poverty, for example, suspending driver’s licenses as a penalty for unpaid fines. These policies create unnecessary barriers to employment, especially for low-income Black residents. Based on that insight, policies that affect low-income workers were within the scope of work to address Baltimore’s workforce challenges.
The National Fund has set a priority around promoting racial equity in workforce outcomes. What’s the connection between systems change and racial equity?
Rachel Mosher-Williams said, “Complex, systemic challenges require sophisticated, long-term strategies to address them. The same is true for ending structural racism.” In other words, a systems change mindset that looks deeper into connections and root causes is a very good way to approach the complex problem of racial equity. But it goes further than that. Equity is both a goal of systems change and mechanism for systems change.
The National Fund’s Jobs and Opportunity initiative in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and Seattle demonstrates equity as both a means – like determining who participates in the project and how data is disaggregated – and a desired end: to close workforce equity gaps.
How can I start doing this kind of work in my community?
First identify the problem and understand how it functions systemically. For example, you might ask, when conditions are x, how does the problem get better or worse?
Then explore whether you’ve identified the right problem. Behavioral economists say that when people are uncertain, they take shortcuts and let their biases influence decisions. This increases the likelihood of solving the wrong problem.
Third, determine whether this particular problem is worth solving. Consider other problems you could address instead, how likely you are to solve the problem, and your ability to have an impact.
Once you’ve decided on a problem, you can use a range of system-informed methods and tools to make decisions about how to address it. There’s no right way to do it, but you do have to try to find the right tools for the problem. The National Fund’s forthcoming systems change toolkit can help [Editor’s note: We will add the link to the toolkit as soon as it’s available.].