Systems thinking – UK central government (Cabinet Office) thing/team

Exciting stuff – there is now a team in the UK Cabinet Office / an aspiration for there to be a movement across UK public services which is roughly called ‘systems thinking’ (I understand that naming discussions are ongoing).

They have a circular logo which reads ‘the system is the solution’ or alternatively ‘the solution is the system’.

Blog homepage here: Systems thinking (you can subscribe by email)

[My interest – apart from my obsession with systems thinking and public service transformation per se – is that I run the Public Service Transformation Academy  –– which delivers amongst other things the Cabinet Office Commissioning Academy on behalf of the UK government, and is dedicated to helping people find more effective ways of thinking and working where things are inherently transdisciplinary]

Folks in the team/movement reading this – please remember that nitpicking is really grooming which is an act of social contribution for we primates 😉

Content so far:

The team – (which conspicuously doesn’t list the team)

Join the movement – (which asks for people to get in touch and comment via the comments)

10 tips for systems leaders –

My thoughts and comments, inspired by this tweet from Mikael Seppälä:


We want to help people across the public sector apply systems thinking to complex problems. So if you want to find out more about how this approach can improve people’s lives, subscribe to our blog. (And a different logo, subtitled ‘exploring the power of systems to solve complex problems).

I think this sets a framing quite nicely. There’s a hint in the subtitle of ‘systems in the world’ being considered rather than ‘systems in the mind’ (thinking about ‘the system’), and a focus on ‘complex’ problems, and cross-public sector working.

And this is ‘helping people across the public sector’ and ‘improv[ing] people’s lives’.  Interesting!

Join the movement

Government has a responsibility to help people with complex problems. Supporting people who’ve lost their ability to work due to poor health or disability, for example, is not easy.

So there is a focus here on Poor Sick Miserable People (PSMP) (individuals), and their complex problems – and the difficulty of helping them.

For someone who is struggling to make ends meet, the last thing they care about is how government is organised – they just want services to work and respond to their needs.  But the way government has evolved over the years, into separate, sometimes competing departments makes using a joined-up approach to solve citizens’ problems really hard.

We need to fix this and we think now is the right time to start.

The Systems Unit helps people across the public sector apply systems thinking to complex problems.

So here is complexity on the government ‘side’, mismatching the complexity of government’s silos. Now may be the time to mention that this does appear to be a perspective that you would be likely to have if you were in departmentalised central government; government as a thing (maybe even as a system). These problems are also inherent in local policy and delivery; I just think that they would be expressed differently.

This is a bit of a needs/deficit orientation perhaps, and very much a ‘service provision’ view of government here.

A different way of thinking about complex problems

In early 2019, we started working on a different approach for delivering services that work better for citizens, called the Strategic Framework. It is an approach that puts citizens first and delivers results by creating joined-up solutions. We want to bring people together across government. We want to involve everyone, the whole system when we design solutions, with all the benefits that a diverse community of ideas can bring.

We believe systems thinking has the potential to help solve the most complex problems of our time, from healthcare to climate change. Goals like sustainability, security, prosperity and wellbeing cut across departmental boundaries and touch on the lives of every citizen. They demand a system-wide approach.

Intriguing that there is an underlying ‘approach’ being worked on here – and this nicely brings the ‘citizens first’ and joining up together. Bringing people together across government is different from ‘involving everyone’, of course, and again might tend to separate community out from ‘government’. This is consistent with government-set goals which ‘cut across departmental boundaries and touch on the lives of every citizen’.

And, again, a ‘system-wide approach’ is very systems-in-the-world, even perhaps implicitly seeing government as a system (and a whole system).

And a nod to the nice nuance of the shift in government diversity language to valuing diverse ideas.

Getting the right people in the room

For those who are leaders, through the National Leadership Centre (NLC) and the Public Sector Leadership Group (PSLG), we are developing new ways to grow cross-government collaboration at the strategic level, bringing together the diverse talents and experience of people like Perm Secs, Director Generals, Chief Constables and heads of NHS trusts.

And we’re also supporting a programme of demonstrator projects to show how solutions that cut across departmental boundaries could work. One of these looks at the experience of prison leavers and the social problems they face, such as reoffending. By getting the right people in the room, leaders, policy officials, charities, and frontline staff to hear directly from prison leavers about their experiences, we can foster a sense of shared ownership of the problem, and start to plan solutions that cut across the divisions within government.

So there is a focus on the people at the top of the hierarchy, again connecting to people with complex needs (prison leavers – though characterising reoffending as a ‘social problem faced by prison leavers’ is intriguing). A ‘whole system in the room’ perspective – but again it is those with power ‘hearing directly’ from those with the problem, in order to share the problem, and work across government to solve. Problem-solution thinking, the ownership of the problem is really with the PSMB but the powerful are able to take this problem on and solve it for them.

Help us build a movement

Systems leadership is not just for leaders. It’s about us all reimagining the way we think about government.

Help us do it. Leave a comment, share your ideas and get in touch below.

It’s interesting – this is the first time ‘systems leadership’ has been mentioned – and I must say that none of the above sounds particularly like reimagining the way we think about government. Having a movement as well as a team and a framework is really interesting and exciting – it will be interesting to see how the shared power requirements of a movement can square with the intuitive and actual centralising pull of the Cabinet Office!

10 tips for systems leaders

This is where we get to some of the exciting centre of how they see this making a difference! It’s another example of nitpicking (or perhaps nuance) which I’m inevitably indulging in here to pick up the fact that ‘systems leaders’ is the heading, not ‘systems leadership’ (or ‘leading’); I’m a bit worried that there’s a pull to senior leaders in the hierarchy…

A system is a group of individuals or an organisation working together or interacting as part of a network.  We believe that everyone in the public sector should be a systems leader.

That means being a leader in a system, rather than a leader of a system. Here are ten tips to help you embrace your inner systems leader. 

BUT ‘everyone should be a systems leader’ is exciting. OK – perhaps interesting that this is everyone ‘in the public sector’ – perhaps another hint that this very concrete conception of a system is ‘the public sector’. AND ‘leader in a system’ (thinking of yourself as a leader in a system) couldn’t really be better, in my opinion.

To allow my nitpicking full sway, though, the concept of ‘inner systems leader’ makes me worry about a focus on individual behaviours and capacities rather than systems impact.

1. Put the citizen at the centre 

From the moment you scope out a problem to the moment you start designing a solution, you  should put the citizen at the centre. It’s also important to establish collective understanding of situation, identify mutual areas of interest, and the shared vision of the outcome you want. 

OK – so the problem-solving focus from problem scoping to solution design is why I said in the tweets that this looks like ‘service design writ large’ – with implications of seeing ‘the service system’ as distinct from the citizen, the citizen as a disempowered individual (not a problem-solver, not part of a community with its own strengths), of an ‘intervention’ (problem to solution, albeit with complications), not an ongoing living system with feedback loops. What citizen at the centre actually means is really critical.

Collective understanding, mutual areas of interest, and shared vision is much more of a whole-system perspective; probably reflective of ‘system in a room’ large group facilitation processes such as FutureSearch.

Mikael picked up the idea of a systems approach tending to promote ‘polycentric value’ – starting from ‘citizen value’ is, of course, the best single starting point (how it is then defined is important), but it’s interesting that when this is singled out and becomes the focus, we see the perspectives of stakeholders (2) and those with power (3-10) come in as complications to be navigated through to achieve the results determined by (1).

2. Mobilise people 

Identify partners across the system and work to understand their perspectives. Challenge your assumptions on who is relevant and who isn’t. If everyone is familiar to you, then perhaps you haven’t mapped widely enough. You should encourage people in your teams to build networks too. Recognise all perspectives are valid. Look to build relationships around areas of mutual interest. 

Lots of good challenges to preconceptions here! ‘All perspectives are valid’ probably requires some explanation (this is obviously a lot of work and a highly condensed list), but the polycentric value is coming in strongly here. But I can imagine (sorry!) this being though about as focused entirely on a central government set of people and stakeholders…

I’m intrigued by the implied focus on systems mapping. And the ‘encourage people in your teams to build networks too’ – this feels like adding in good thinking perhaps from a different perspective and text.

3. Keep learning 

Take the time to learn about the situation. Be realistic about the time it will take to undertake the work. This may involve managing expectations of others. 

Very good, of course – again from a project-based problem-solving perspective. I’d like to see the implication that this kind of approach is counter-cultural (embedded in ‘managing expectations of others’) explored more fully – in a sense, it is in all the below, but slipping into the framing of projects and business cases will always put this kind of work on the back foot; an entirely different way of thinking needs to be generated.

4. Promote collective leadership 

Try to prioritise building trust and a good working relationship with people across the system. This takes time but go for informal coffees and actively listen. 

Great stuff. The descent into the particular is always hard to communicate and revealing of preconceptions. People in Westminster (and around the country) go for informal coffees – people making a difference in communities might perhaps use different language.

5. Work through tension 

Tension and conflict are to be expected, so try to focus on the areas of mutual interest. Identify incentives. You shouldn’t seek to change or block others plans unless they seriously undermine the collective endeavour. 

I’d love to hear about the thinking behind this; this is a hugely important area, of course. The text feels like pulling away from ‘working through’ tension, into the risk of avoiding tension. Again, this seems to map well to people trying to achieve change without disruption within the civil service.

6. Navigate the politics 

Do your best to navigate through the internal and national politics. It’s a worthwhile thing to do given the long term nature of systems change. Understand power structures, including where informal power lies, organisational structures, reporting lines, decision rights, accountabilities as well as culture and history. 

Now the concept (and movement/methodologies) of ‘systems change’ are invoked. Brilliant to see power structures addressed (certainly from an institutional perspective), and an acknowledgement that big change in systems may take a long time. And very brave and helpful to have national (‘big P’) politics acknowledged as well. This is focused on addressing power structures as they have emerged (and perhaps concretised and fixed) from underlying systems, but the very fact that these power structures have emerged rather than being a given is important, I think.

Culture and history nicely included.

7. Be flexible. Co-create solutions 

Be flexible in co-creating solutions by encouraging iteration, adaptation and evolution. Don’t start with a fixed idea of what the right answer looks like.

Absolutely splendid points to make.

8. Secure resource commitments 

Secure commitments from the system. Invest in a small central secretariat function ideally staffed from different stakeholders. Get the right people in the room regardless of grade. The person with the highest grade may not be the right person. 

Not to labour the point; these are civil service words. If this is the focus of ‘secure commitments from the system’, the system is too narrowly conceived.

9. Establish accountability 

Work out who is accountable for what. People should have a clear mandate to operate. Agree how to monitor progress, setting appropriate targets for the stage of project. 

Yes – accountability is central. People need to know their discretion of work; what is their work to do; what are the boundaries.

And no – projects and targets have implications, which are likely to undermine all this good thinking. People will say that the learning about how to work in complexity would suggest that projects with fixed plans and targets are a bad way to achieve this; I’d point out that this applies to the complicated also.

The risk is we are talking about ‘long-term underlying change with the citizen at the centre, delivered in a way which respects current paradigms and doesn’t ruffle feathers or change the current assumptions of the system’. That’s like trying to tie your shoes with one hand tied behind your back…

10. Work out the risk appetite 

Work out the level of risk different stakeholders are prepared to accept. Agree a shared approach to risk across the system. 

Risk awareness is obviously valuable and critical; it’s notable that risk, but not benefits, is identified here… but this is like tying the other hand behind your back if you’re not careful 😉

These top tips were developed by the Cross-government Systems Leadership and Accountability Group sponsored by Nick Dyer and Paul Kett. This group is made up of volunteers from the Department for Education (DfE), Department for International Development (DfID) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Thank you to everyone who helped shape and develop these tips. Particular thanks go to Karen Clark from the Organisation Development, Design and Learning Expert Service.

So I think this is a good pragmatic starting guide to ‘how to use some systems thinking tools in implementing larger-scale service design for central government to join up to provide better services for people in need’. A worthy goal indeed, and if this thinking is reflected on itself, there are perhaps some paradigm shifts well beyond this goal which could be conceived of and even achieved.