To change society we need to change systems

Alice EvanspicSystems change focuses on the root causes – rather than the symptoms – of social and economic problems. At LankellyChase Foundation it is at the heart of its work, explains programme director Alice Evans. 

‘When the funding ends, the projects ends. If only I could get the idea to take hold within the wider system.’ I don’t know how many times I have heard that statement; both when I was working in delivery charities and now working within an independent funder.

LankellyChase, like others with limited resources, is a bit like the David to public systems Goliath. Our resources stretch to the few millions compared to the billions within the public system. Why then have we come to the conclusion that our focus should be on systems change?

LankellyChase is an independent charitable foundation. Over our 50-year history, we have always had a focus on individuals whose circumstances or history meant that they were on the fringes of society. Individuals whose multiplicity of disadvantage means they ricochet between services and systems each dealing with a single need.

As a result the individual at best becomes the hero who has overcome adversity against all odds, and, at worst, services unintentionally work against each other pushing the individual into further disadvantage.

Historically, the response has been to recognise this difficulty, identify gaps and create interventions designed to fill the gap – thin paper that plasters over the cracks. In practice what these interventions do is layer yet more complexity onto an already bewildering and complicated system.

We are keen to see a far more integrated,

collaborative approach that starts with the individual

If you think about the system as a tube map, then each station stop is an intervention, a service, a different sector or silo. The system is the way that each of the stops, the lines, the trains and the passengers all work together. The traditional response has to been to focus on individual stations or lines, yet all the time leaving the wider system, the tube map, unchanged.

We have felt a growing sense of frustration that the root causes of severe and multiple disadvantage were not being tackled, that the wider system was carrying on regardless and that we could use our resources differently. And then came the threat and opportunity: austerity, public service reform and increasing demand. The old way of doing things could no longer suffice. An understandable response would be to raise the thresholds for services ever higher, or to try to provide the same level of service with less resource and less capacity.

Neither feels like a satisfactory response. Yet it is the response that I see too often. And why is this? At its simplest, it’s often because people are hampered by restrictions placed on them by their role, by their organisation, by where their funding originates and because of a fear of becoming the next Sharon Shoesmith. In other words people hampered by the system we have all had an inadvertent hand in creating.

All of which has led us to conclude that we need to think radically differently about how we approach issues such as severe and multiple disadvantage.

By thinking radically we don’t mean creating a new ‘super client group’ out of severe and multiple disadvantage or establishing yet more specialised services that end when the money runs out. Nor are we interested in saying that free market principles should be applied and individuals cut loose without support. We are keen to see a far more integrated, collaborative approach that starts with the individual and designs a response from there. Easy to say, hard to achieve.

We look to systems change as a process that might help shift things more fundamentally. It’s an emergent field, but one which seeks to focus on showing what could be, rather than focusing on the issues with the existing system. It is about thinking about the root causes rather than the symptoms.

For example, Foundation for Families uses serious case reviews to work with partners to understand what needs to change within systems set up to respond to domestic violence. The Integrate Movement want to change the way that systems and structures think about and respond to mental health by putting the individual at the heart – learning from the approach of Mac-UK. Arts at the Old Fire Station is showing what can happen when you bring the social care and arts worlds together.

We are interested in using all of our assets (funding, independence, expertise) to work with organisations, public and voluntary, as well as individuals with lived experience to imagine and unlock a different way of enabling people facing severe and multiple disadvantage to live the life they want to live and, most importantly, to see what can be done to prevent people ever ending up facing severe and multiple disadvantage.

The aim is not to slay the Goliath or set it up against all the Davids of this world, but to work with all the tools at our disposal to help Goliath recognise that changing systems is the only way we can all win.

We are sponsoring this edition of New Start to showcase the systems change work already taking place and to start a debate about where this work could lead.

  • Read about LankellyChase’s recent work mapping severe and multiple disadvantage here and here.
  • Read ‘How to change our failing systems’ here.


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