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Turning to face the strange: systems ch-ch-ch-change in Wales

October 27, 2016

RA1.jpgSystems change, whole systems approaches, systems change thinking…….all developing concepts in the world of preventing youth offending.  As concepts they cause as much confusion and frustration (and perhaps some panic, as we all feel we should know about these things)  as they give comfort that the ‘system’ that so regularly fails so many children and young people can be turned around, shifted,  changed.  In their recent publication Systems change: A guide to what it is and how to do it, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) sets out principles that underpin a systems change approach which, they say, is still far from the norm in the social sector.  Consequently, if a systems change approach is the means, we are still a long way away from the end…

Realising Ambition is a UK-wide £25m Big Lottery Fund programme replicating 25 youth offending prevention services. It has always been a platform for debate about improving outcomes for children and young people, centring on diverting them from pathways into offending. Our approach has been about systems change: supporting grantees to become learning organisations, a key principle underlined by NPC; ensuring the services and programmes we fund are tightly defined and underpinned with a clear logical connection between their different parts; and helping funders, commissioners and policy makers to ask the right questions about the impact of the portfolio of services they engage, fund or purchase.

Our annual Wales roundtable event, held recently at Cardiff City Hall, was focussed on systems change thinking and brought together some key figures from the Welsh education and youth justice systems to look at what’s been done – and what needs doing – to better join up the two systems to improve outcomes for children and young people.

Systems change is often criticised as being too abstract and hard to pin down, so the event brought funders, commissioners, policy makers and practitioners together to hear some concrete examples of systems change approaches in action, and to discuss what is happening in Wales already.

Dartington Social Research Unit’s Nick Axford talked through systems change thinking and gave us an example of it in practice: A key reason why Renfrewshire Council commissioned Action for Children’s Functional Family Therapy service was because it had been embedded within the local authority with Realising Ambition funding.  It had shown positive outcomes, fitted in with the Council’s wider assessment of the cost-benefit of services provided to local people and needed less start up investment because it had been embedded. This illustrates the public savings that can come from grant funding. He also introduced us to systems dynamics – which maps the relationships between elements in a system and how they affect each other – and told us to be open to challenge, to hard work and to disinvesting in things that don’t work.

Representatives from Barnardo’s, Success for All and Catch22’s include and Turnaround programmes told us about how they take a whole-school approach – systems change in action. They described programmes that support children and young people’s well-being, emotional resilience, educational attainment and other behaviours known to contribute long term to criminality prevention by addressing the way that the school manages, engages and teaches its young people.

Afterwards, key figures in Welsh education and youth justice discussed systems change that is happening in Wales, the innovations necessary to improve commissioning and funding, and what further steps can be taken to develop systems change thinking.

It was agreed that introducing a Commissioner for Children and a Future Generations Commissioner in Wales has been key to stimulating the debate about systems change, as have been external pressures such as the merging of youth sector providers across the country. Attendees argued strongly, however, for more coordination, collaboration and strategic approaches in Wales.

The consensus was that involving the third sector in mapping the current system and matching services to need would help embed systems change, and Public Service Boards were seen as having a primary role in taking an integrated approach. On the other hand, there were calls for the third sector in Wales to address its current tendency towards competition in the pursuit of contracts and to take responsibility for a more collaborative approach to the commissioning process, regardless of the involvement of commissioning bodies in the process.

Wales has begun its journey toward systems change – stakeholders are doing a lot. They agree that they are still near the beginning of the process and striking the balance between meeting pressing needs in the here and now and developing systems change initiatives is tough, but they are clearly resolved to change systems to make a difference for children and young people.


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