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Why should we focus on building systems versus programs?

What is Systems Building?

Those of us who work in social service related fields, like subsidized housing, early childhood education, and child welfare hear almost constant references to “systems building” from our funders, policymakers, colleagues and evaluators. Is systems building just another “jargony” term with a limited shelf life?

The answer is no: while systems building may be called by many different names, the concept is here to stay, because it represents the simple notion that you should look at the big picture of the system to figure out how better to serve the system’s target populations (whoever they might be).

A “system” in this context is the aggregation of different programs, services, policies, and funding streams that collectively respond to a particular need.

The term “systems building” refers to building a new system or working to improve an existing system that is fragmented, informal, or missing key pieces. ((www.coloradotrust.org/attachments/0001/1403/EarlyChildhoodSystemBuilding_IssueBrief.pdf))

 

What’s so complicated about systems building, anyway?

Systems building can be a messy and labor intensive process. It always requires collaboration and often requires navigating multiple complex bureaucratic departments and, at times, an entrenched and contentious political environment. However, the end result is worth it! An effective, coordinated system can make a difference in people’s lives in a way that simply improving siloed programs cannot.

Here’s an example: Take youth homelessness. The vast majority of homeless youth need much more than mere shelter. In addition to a new place to live, a homeless youth may need support from an attorney for a past infraction with the law, a medical home to ensure access to medical support and care, vocational training or access to a good GED program and/ or subsidized higher education so he can find a job and pay the rent in his new place to live, and counseling to address the child abuse, domestic violence, or other home-related problems that drove him to leave home and live on the streets in the first place.

This requires a pretty big variety of programs and supports to come together and “wrap around” the youth. Building the youth homelessness system involves collaboration between all these programs and services, and all these programs and services have other targets besides youth, their own funding constraints, and are accountable to their own populations, funders, policymakers, and evaluators. And this is just what one youth might need – it’s nothing like the universe of what all the homeless youth in Colorado might need in order to end their homelessness.

 

What are the ingredients needed for effective systems building?

Building an effective system requires, at its foundation, consensus building and planning – in essence, a thoughtful planning process that brings together a broad and diverse group of stakeholders who are willing to transcend territorialism and politics to come together around a shared goal.

But there are other things that are necessary as well:

  • A sound infrastructure on the policy / system level of governance and decision making.
  • People in the trenches doing the work and, subsequently, a well-defined management and operations system on the program/service level is another critical component.


In order to be able to effectively serve the population you are trying to support, careful thought and assessment needs to be dedicated to developing the service array/benefit design.

In concert with the service array/ benefit design, the system needs to have strong entry and exit plans for clients who ware transitioning out of a system. Does for example, that homeless youth who is transitioning out of the homeless system – and has finished vocational training and secured a job working in the solar energy field – have ongoing support to help ensure that youth know the basics of being a professional from showing up at work on time, to dressing professionally, and addressing and handling management?

What else does a system need? Relevant screening assessment/testing and service planning. A diverse array of funding to build and grow the system – the systems budget, funding and financing strategies.

How do you know if your system is operating at its highest potential? To ensure that your system is continually working to improve its responsiveness to the population it is trying to serve, you have to incorporate quality monitoring/data and evaluation.

Also, ensuring that the individuals providing the programs receive training and professional development can only benefit the system.

Finally, an effective system requires the input of the population it is working to serve. An effective system is culturally responsive and includes consumer and family leadership. Without consumer and family leadership a system is missing, perhaps, the most important contribution to developing a culturally responsive and fully operational system.

But don’t be alarmed by the length of this list! The good news is that you can work on these things one at a time – you just need to make sure you’re thinking about the big picture of the whole system as you work on each of these pieces. Whether your organization works to prevent domestic violence or is involved in environmental preservation, engaging in collaboration to support systems building, while often a long-term and messy proposition, will ultimately be the most powerful approach in accomplishing your goals.