Behaviour change for systems change


Collaborate launched a new report on place-based systems change at the end of last year. Behaving like a system? showcases our findings from a piece of action research carried out in Coventry.

Funded by Lankelly Chase and following the critical Hard edges report, our practice-based work explored place-based systems change for those facing multiple and severe disadvantage particularly through Coventry’s programmes on homelessness and troubled families.

A key finding from the work was that there aren’t barriers to systems change but there are ‘preconditions’ for it, and ‘behaviours’ that make it more likely to happen.

The pre-conditions for systems change emerged as we worked with The Salvation Army, Coventry Winter Night Shelter and Coventry’s Troubled Families programme, exploring the ways in which people and organisations collaborated across the system. Using a combination of one to one interviews and workshops, we talked to senior managers from public, private and third sector organisations, frontline staff and service users across the city to unpick what underpinned systemic success. An initial focus on ‘hard’ structures for systems change gave way to a pure focus on behaviours as the crucial first step and we hope our work is valuable to anyone interested in then ‘how’ of systems change.

At Collaborate we strongly believe that collaboration with the pubic is the key to the future design and delivery of public services. We tend to articulate that through the use of the term ‘services to the public’ rather than ‘public services’. However, just recently a colleague challenged this and asked ‘Shouldn’t it be services with the public?’ Certainly our experience in Coventry supports this shift: four of our nine preconditions for systems change specifically place citizens, their assets and the place they live in at front and centre, ahead of any organisational objective.

The four pre-conditions are:

1. Beneficiary impact over organisational focus

This pre-condition challenges the tendency for organisations to make decisions that focus on the needs of the institution, rather than the outcomes for the citizens it serves. The challenge is how organisations can shift their behaviour by purposefully creating a vision for systems that take a different approach to decision-making, so that citizens are reflected not only in decisions about design but also share power and have an equal stake in what outcomes a place is working towards. This will require new incentives that cut across organisational boundaries and act in the interests of change for residents in a place rather than targets, regulation and accountability to institutions or national regulators.

2. Citizen-centred: From concept to delivery

This precondition is a direct challenge to those ‘doing’ systems change, by focusing on behaviour that places the citizen at the heart of the process. This means taking it beyond tokenistic gestures and consultation processes that at best, are just not very consultative or, at worst, are meaningless tick box exercises. This is about developing a meaningful narrative of what it means to be a Collaborative Citizen and co-producing systems that recognise citizens as critical and equal stakeholders; from design to delivery!

3. Grounded in place but open to new approaches

This precondition is about harnessing the assets of a place as the starting point but without being constrained by ‘the way things are done around here’ in order to learn try new things and leapfrog traditional routes to change through disruption. The history, geography and politics of a place (alongside the people) all form an important part of the story of any place. That narrative should significantly influence the interdependent relationships with a system and how those dynamics might play out in real time.  We spent time understanding how things typically ‘get done’ in Coventry before we began developing our framework so we could understand what might be positively disruptive in that place. Disruption in one place is business as usual in another – understanding this is critical to achieving place-based systems change.

4. Strengths based: Using the assets and people and place

This is about focusing on the positive capacity of individuals and communities – rather than on their needs, deficits and problems – a particular challenge for professionals working with those facing multiple, complex needs. Developing community resilience can usefully start by mapping the strengths of its people and institutions which should then influence the resilience of the system also.  Our summary report has quotes from service users illustrating the difference to them if these preconditions are in place (and how their experience differs if they are not in place) which probably makes the case for ‘Behaving like a system’ more compellingly than any framework or report!

We hope that Collaborate’s Framework, and these four pre-conditions specifically, can support practitioners and academics alike to consider what an approach to systems change that prioritises citizens, assets and place would look like as we shift from ‘services to the public’ to ‘services with the public’.

  • The full version of Behaving like a System? can be found here. It was authored by La Toyah McAllister-Jones and Sarah Billiald from @collaborateIns

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La Toyah McAllister-Jones is programme associate on citizen engagement at Collaborate

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