Unravelling Complexity

Simon Jebreel

starlingsThe Head of Policy at Ealing Council, Ann Griffiths, has recently written a fascinating blog about complexity theory and local services for the new think tank Synthesis. This is a pertinent issue and one that is very important to the way we work at The Shaftesbury Partnership.

Ms Griffiths argues that there is a challenging leap for policy makers from system-thinking to system-doing, and that the technology for data collection and outcome measurement needs to be improved in order to move out of silos and recognise the complexity of the system – and of human behaviour.

This is while acknowledging that it will be impossible to ever develop a model that will accurately capture such a complex system in its entirety:

“In an ideal world, we’d be able to make decisions on changes to a service, funding or to processes based on a well-evidenced understanding of the wider impact that might have, given our knowledge of the system that the decision was taken in. Imagine for example, a model that showed reliably what was likely to happen across a range of acute services in an area when investment was made in x early intervention services.

Unfortunately, being able to do this scientifically requires an understanding of how the parts of the system fit together and interact, which most of us simply don’t have at the moment.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Ms Griffiths’ analysis, which is in line with much of the analysis behind our venture Looking Up. However, we have also taken a complementary approach to unravelling complexity and moving into system-doing. Big picture modelling in the abstract is important, but we think it is vital to view complex problems from two directions at once – not only the abstract, but also the empirical.

Looking Up focusses on individuals with multiple needs (as well as the “troubled families” Ms Griffiths’ blog talks about). The complexity of interactions these people have with services (which is built upon another layer of complexity, in budgets) is compounded by a poverty of personal relationships.

In the first area, our focus is on the modelling and data needs mentioned above. In the second, however, it is the empirical perspective that has proven compelling: research has demonstrated the power of a stable relationship with a trusted person to help the individual navigate and be insulated from the complexity in their lives.

Bringing in an empirical perspective can shift the balance towards the ‘doing’ in system-doing, overcoming the hurdle from system thinking. Thus we are currently working in Lewisham with people with multiple needs, tracking their interactions with the complex system to further develop our model.

The real power, however, is when you are able to connect the abstract and the empirical. Looking Up will do this by empowering the trusted person with a personal budget for the individual with multiple needs, thus ‘pulling’ the appropriate services out of the system, and unravelling the complexity.

If you would like to comment on this blog, please email: feedback@shaftesburypartnership.org

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