Much has been written about systems thinking and its potential application in public administration. However, to date there is no clear consensus about its key concepts or methods, and very little empirical evidence exists to guide system level stewardship practice for those working in government. In this paper we review and synthesise the literature to first provide an overview of core systems ideas and theory. Second, we propose a practical application of systems thinking in four key areas of stewardship which may assist people working within and with government to deliver public policy outcomes in complex and dynamic service environments. In doing this we address the key question: how can governments and others design, deliver and evaluate effective policy and manage risk in complex and dynamic environments?
First we propose that stewardship needs to incorporate a focus on supporting cooperation among stakeholders if it is to achieve outcomes. Departments can apply policy levers to foster cooperation among actors within and interacting with service systems so that people can navigate the service system seamlessly and with confidence. Such a role involves designing and delivering policy under individual departments’ purview, and also contributing to a service system that can work in concert across jurisdictions and sectors to achieve shared goals.
Second, we suggest it is important to understand the implications of different types of complexity in public service delivery. We apply the current policy literature to demonstrate how different types of complexity can impact on compounding marginalisation and increasing disadvantage, and policy activities that might be undertaken to address these.
Third, we argue that a systems approach encourages clarification of policy goals at multiple system levels and builds in capacity for learning and improvement. This involves a shift away from existing information structures and flows to a system that supports the collection and use of data across multiple jurisdictions to improve service and to understand and monitor changes in market conditions, client outcomes, and public benefit. We offer an employment services example that highlights how different types of de-identified data might be disaggregated and used at different levels of the system from micro to macro to interrogate and achieve different policy questions and goals.
Fourth, a systems approach forces a reconsideration of individualised incentives and support for collective action solutions and partnerships. A key weakness in the institutional architecture of many systems engaged in delivering public services to common groups of citizens is the lack of an incentive framework to act outside achieving individual program and organisational key performance indicators. Addressing policy issues like long-term unemployment, social and economic inclusion for people with disabilities, health or environmental issues calls for a coherent funding and performance measurement regime that rewards collective-action solutions and partnerships between services across jurisdictions to participate meaningfully in the community.