Our Blog

Accidental Systems Change

By Risa Wilkerson on October 28th, 2015

Policy, systems and environmental change (or PSE change for short) is a phrase we talk about a lot in our work with communities. If we’re introducing the concept for the first time, people quickly understand policy change (e.g., ordinances, codes, employee handbooks) and environmental change (e.g., green space, sidewalks, community gardens), but systems change often requires further explanation.  I think the reason is two-fold: 1) “Systems change” sounds huge and daunting, and 2) it’s the stuff that makes up a culture: the beliefs, values, practices, the written and unwritten ways of doing business. It’s not as tangible as a policy or environmental change, even though PSE changes are interconnected.

And systems change does not happen all at once, nor does it always happen with the intentionality that some models suggest you follow.

Take, for example, our national parks system. On a recent family vacation to Yosemite National Park, I learned how a series of “accidental” changes led to large-scale systems change. Prior to becoming a national park, the Yosemite Grant (a policy change) was created at the federal level, which ceded the tract to California’s control. This was the first time in U.S. history when land was designated strictly for preservation and public use (an environmental change). A decade later, similar conversations were happening around Yellowstone, but Wyoming and Montana were not yet states. Yellowstone, therefore, fell under the control of the federal government as a national public park. This was the first national park in the world—simply because there wasn’t a state to maintain it. Soon, many other national parks were formed, creating the need for a new agency. The National Parks Service (NPS) was born (a systems change), and now this model is common in countries around the world.

Why did this approach work? Creating the NPS wasn’t part of a logic model. It wasn’t written into the deliverables of a grant proposal. And it certainly wasn’t done to appease a funder. It worked because of the values held by advocates and decision makers across the country. It took decades of continually shaping and revisiting policy, systems and environmental changes to create and sustain the NPS.

This particular example was a change for the better [1]. But what about those systems that are still in need of change? Or haven’t yet been created? There are just as many accidental systems, some with unintended consequences, which perpetuate the obesity epidemic, gentrification and racism, to name a few. Sometimes internal practices created in the name of efficiency can create external problems. While policy and environmental changes are clearer indications of what is and isn’t working, systems changes address more of the informal, nuanced, or blurrier rules. They require individuals to ask broader questions like:

“Why do we do things this way?”

“What are we doing that is causing these (unintended) effects?”

“What practices seem to negatively impact the organization or community?”

I’ve talked about the unintended outcomes of accidental systems change, but what happens when passionate people come together to strategically work towards healthy community strategies? The sky is the limit, and the impacts can have a ripple effect. B.J. Fogg, the director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford, says,

“You can never change just one behavior. Our behaviors are interconnected, so when you change one behavior, other behaviors also shift.” 

At a community level, systems changes can alter many behaviors simultaneously through a combination of intentional choices in line with a community’s values. Perhaps residents and leaders want to invest new resources in their downtown, work to alleviate food deserts, end gang violence or increase physical activity rates. It would certainly take policy and environmental changes to achieve these goals, but the larger systems have to be addressed as well. This starts with scanning practices and rules, those formal and informal ways of doing business, and asking bigger questions.

[1] See the picture, above, from my trip.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.