The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.
By Karyl Ramsey
Our social systems are growing more complex, and the problems they face … like poverty, poor health, crime, and economic development … have more and more moving parts.
Put simply: the problems are adapting, while the public agencies that deal with them are often not.
We need an approach that considers the inter-relatedness of all aspects of our social systems as we pursue solutions to social concerns. Collaboration among public agencies, viewed from a systems perspective, can connect all the dots. Public agencies in communities typically provide services at different agencies. For example, health, education, employment, and housing services are provided by separate agencies with separate bureaucratic processes. Often the outcome of one agency process, such as employment, impacts the outcome at another, such as housing. However, the processes are not coordinated: the result is a fragmented social service system in need of an understanding of what constitutes life-enhancing, sustainable practices. For individuals, the result can be devastating. Without employment a person may lose their housing.
Now more than ever before, public agencies have both an opportunity and a responsibility to engage in collaborative approaches to resolve social problems.
Collaboration among public agencies has the potential to develop solutions for broader systems change by developing knowledge on a local level that can be transferred and integrated across systems. However, a missing piece in the overall picture of interagency collaboration is an understanding of agencies, institutions, and collaboration from a systems perspective.
For example, a public health department with a mission to care for the health of the community must also research effective policy and practice. At the same time, the local university conducts research on issues that are relevant to the health department and the community. However, the two entities do not share the information or the resources. This practice wastes resources and limits the benefit to the community.
A collaboration process does not lend itself to mechanistic or predictable implementation. Instead, it is an emergent process that reflects the interconnected, complex nature of social systems. This requires a shift in how public agencies are perceived, from independent entities with separate functions, to interdependent entities within a cultural context – that is, a culture of collaboration.
In a collaboration among juvenile justice, education, mental health, and social services agencies, participants explored the process of collaboration as they sought to address youth truancy. Participants found certain cultural conditions that were conducive to supporting the emergence of sustainable solutions. These conditions included:
- Involving participants concerned about the problem,
- Acknowledging participants’ contributions,
- Fostering caring relationships and learning, and
- Co-designing principles and practices.
Participants acknowledged that there could not be just one solution to youth truancy because it is a complex social problem. What constituted sustainable solutions, they found, are those that can change in response to changing needs. Participants were able to co-design strategies that were flexible and creative to support youth to re-engage in school.
The lesson for public agencies is that there will never be just one solution to a problem; neither will one solution necessarily endure for all time. Through collaboration, participants can consciously create a process that can work with complexity.
These understandings are in alignment with systems principles that tells us that the capacity for solutions to emerge from a system depends on relationships. In addition, sustainable solutions emerge from the components of a system in which those relationships can adapt more quickly to changes.