Nerys Anthony: Why we need Systems Change if we’re to achieve impact

By Nerys Anthony, interim Executive Director for Youth Impact at the Children’s Society
on 27 June 2022
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For 20 years NPC has been helping philanthropists and charities to maximise social impact in the lives of the people they serve. To mark our 20th birthday, we’ve been talking to leading figures and people doing things differently to ask: Where next for social impact? In this essay, Nerys Anthony examines why we need Systems Change if we’re to achieve impact. Opinions are the author’s own.

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Anyone providing a public service would benefit from adopting a systemic approach. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

At The Children’s Society we have big ambitions for children and young people way beyond our direct reach as a charity.

Through our work with children who have been exploited or are at risk of exploitation, our support for refugee and migrant children, and our emotional health and wellbeing provision, we’ve learnt that delivering these services face to face with young people is not enough. As we look to the future, we know that systemic change is needed.

As young people face greater life challenges, we need to lean harder into systemic approaches in the coming decades to create meaningful change that will impact more lives.

We have therefore changed our approach at The Children’s Society to consider how we can respond differently to stop needs escalating. By addressing issues upstream, we can reduce crises, improve wellbeing, safeguard children and limit long-term harm.

I believe there’s a strong case for adopting systemic practice across the sector. Here’s what we’ve learnt from our experience supporting children and young people at The Children’s Society.

 

Adopting a systems lens for wider reach

We see different children, but the same problems. These are all systemic, whether it’s barriers to reporting abuse, discrimination and oppression, poverty, school exclusion, lack of access to services, social isolation, or undiagnosed learning needs. They are all needs that aren’t being met by society.

We’d love our direct work to be enough, but we know we need to think wider and look at the contexts young people inhabit. When we look to the future, we must recognise that there will be issues we don’t yet know of and cannot anticipate. But what we do know is that if we act now, we can change the course for future generations. That’s where systems change comes in.

System changes are changes to the people, organisations, policies, processes, cultures, beliefs, and environments that make up a system. At The Children’s Society we seek to change these to respond better to children and young people.

Such intentions are easy to write but hard to implement. The reality is that this is complex. We are talking about systems that are decades old, that are broken and therefore do not always work in the best interests of children and young people. They are complex.

These systems are more than the sum of their parts. They are ever changing and evolving, reactive to live information and affecting and responding to each other. The different elements of complex systems have interesting and unpredictable ways of interacting. We’ve learnt at The Children’s Society that we can’t just refer to systems as some abstract entity separate from our own work. We must recognise that we all make up part of these systems in our own way.

 

A systemic model of change

Our approach to seeing the ‘whole system’ when developing and designing services has really helped our thinking and practice. I propose that anyone providing a public service would benefit from adopting this approach. It takes time to develop. We’ve approached it through learning about what’s working in systems change for young people; listening to young people and their families. Deepening our knowledge of the most effective responses, so as to develop a systemic model of change that supports individual young people and their families and improves the systems with which they come into contact.

The system has different levels. At an individual level are the children, young people, and their families. Around them is the interpersonal level of interactions and experiences with peers, support providers, in school, online or in neighbourhoods. Above this is the institutional and policy level of policies, processes and support agencies. Finally, at the societal level are the social norms and ideologies that affect how everyone in the system behaves.

Each of these levels are interrelated and exert an influence on children and young people. We therefore need to work on all of them to improve young people’s wellbeing sustainably.

Designing systems change into delivery

Building on this systemic model for change, we’ve been designing programmes, services and responses that endeavour to go beyond service delivery and enable systems change.

We do this because our practitioners are part of the system, and so we are part of what enables the system to be adaptive and to change. We work hard to empower our practitioners to be agents of change; to make best use of their power to influence change from within.

Across The Children’s Society, we explicitly work at all levels of this systemic model. We cannot tackle each ‘issue’ in isolation nor can we do it alone. Collaboration is essential, so we need to bring the right partners together at the right times to lead on different aspects.

‘The change in perspective around children and young people is quite marked. It’s moving towards looking at children as children rather than drug dealers. Previously the child was often viewed as a willing participant…now almost the default position is that if we come across children, the first thing to consider is exploitation…that’s due to the messaging around it and partnership work with other agencies including The Children’s Society’

Stakeholder

We cannot help children without understanding the context the child is living in, and for this we need to listen to and believe them. We know its complex, we know we all need to work together to safeguard children and prevent further harm, but we believe that by making changes in the way we all work now, we can create more impact for young people.

‘[The Children’s Society team] often has success where other agencies have encountered difficulties. [They have] bought into the process and have a range of partners at a local level that they can call upon to build up a bigger picture of the issues and individuals’.

Stakeholder

This is just a snapshot of the complex work we undertake now, in order to make change for the future. The context here is children and young people – but systemic thinking and action to make change can happen across and beyond public service.

By adopting different ways of working, championing collaboration, and challenging ourselves to positively agitate, organisations can start preparing now to achieve this. Systemic thinking is essential to tackling all current and future social problems that we face.

Practitioners are part of the system, so we are part of what enables the system to adapt and change. #20yearsofNPC Click To Tweet

What should NPC be doing? 

I’d like to see NPC and others supporting charities to convene, sharing their expertise. Also – support with measuring change, we all say it is hard to measure and demonstrate systems change but we need to try something!

 

We hope you find these essays and interviews engaging and thought provoking. We’d love to hear what you think the future holds, and what you believe NPC should be focusing on. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #20yearsofNPC or through our events. As a charity ourselves we rely on the generosity of those who value our work to help us to continue to produce research and guidance to support the sector in maximising social impact. Visit the 20 years of NPC page to find out more. 

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