Making systems change a reality: Reflections from ‘All systems go’!


Katie Boswell


Systems change is often difficult to understand and almost always very difficult to do, so when I was invited to the IRC’s ‘All systems go’ symposium in the Hague I jumped at the opportunity. Three days of exploring systems change in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector with those actually doing it in different contexts around the world was too good a learning opportunity to pass up.

It was a great conference and I was grateful that IRC invited people from outside the sector—such as myself—to help them reflect on their progress and next steps. In the spirit of collaboration, which we know is so essential to changing systems, I want to share four themes of the symposium that I think everyone can learn from in their systems change work:

Removing systems blindness
A common refrain throughout the symposium was that systems are more than taps, toilets, pipes and pumps. Coming from outside the WASH sector, this was fascinating to hear. In other sectors like health, I’ve seen people assume that systems refer to institutions like the UK’s National Health Service. It reminded me that we all start with our preconceptions of what ‘the system’ refers to.

In his opening speech, Patrick Moriarty (CEO of IRC) invited delegates to end our ‘systems blindness’ and engage with the systems around us. This is a continuous process, like peeling back the layers of an onion, as Angela Huston (IRC Programme Officer) pointed out in her closing summary.

In my experience, people often start with the most visible elements of a system—such as physical infrastructure or institutions. Going deeper prompts us to look at more intangible elements like people, culture, policies, rules and regulations. The more layers you peel back, the more you understand what really drives system behaviours.

Avoiding systems clash
In a rousing keynote speech on Day two, Dr Gilbert Buckle (Chairman of the Healthcare Federation of Ghana) urged us to avoid ‘systems clash’. For example, if WASH is to be integrated into healthcare, the two systems need to be aligned and people need to see how they are working towards common benefits.

This reminds us that many social issues sit between overlapping systems. In NPC’s work on tackling the UK homelessness crisis, we see how homeless people interact with welfare, health and criminal justice systems. Systems change to end homelessness requires work across all these systems.

At the same time, Dr Buckle highlights the challenges in working across systems. They often have different priorities, languages, and ways of working. Effective collaboration benefits from people who can translate between systems and connect divergent cultures.

Acknowledging our part in the system
One of NPC’s rules of thumb for systems change in our Thinking Big guide is ‘Know yourself’. We are all part of the system. Our attitudes, behaviours, and relationships may help to uphold the current status quo—even if we are trying to change it.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of the symposium for me was seeing people turn the mirror on themselves and interrogate their part in the WASH system. I heard people asking how their short-term project timeframes, failure to listen to communities, or output-focused funding mechanisms could all undermine the change they were seeking.

Similarly in the UK we have been working with trusts and foundations to explore how our sector’s power dynamics, lack of diversity, or failure to make the most of assets can undermine the change that we seek. These conversations are vital if we are to make progress on the issues that we care about.

Systems change leading
Throughout the symposium, delegates commented that conversations were getting pushed further and the quality of debate was higher than other WASH conferences. The focus on systems change pushed people to be ambitious, recognise complexity, and own up to areas that had not gone so well in the past.

As a systems change advocate, this is really encouraging. Systems thinking is often accused of being navel-gazing or time-wasting. Done right, it can challenge and inspire and connect. Well done to IRC for putting on a fantastic conference and galvanising action around this important topic.

Katie Boswell is deputy head of funders at New Philanthropy Capital

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