Certain problems can be resolved by dismantling its components, replacing the broken parts and putting things back together. As the Omidyar Group describes it, these “clock” problems are mechanical, finite and predictable. Other problems cannot be resolved unless all parts of the system are taken into account because changing one factor will affect another, thus mitigating or strengthening your expected outcomes. These “cloud” problems are ever-changing, unpredictable and hard to control.
Systems change best when systems change themselves, however process skills are needed to help the system change itself.
The loss of public trust in our U.S. democratic institutions is a complex problem that requires a systems approach to bring about a healthier outcome.
In 2016, Democracy Fund (DF) sought to describe the forces driving congressional dysfunction using such an approach in order to find opportunities to improve how the institution fulfills its obligations to the American people.
Their research uncovered a system of reinforcing loops in which elected officials are overwhelmed by the demands and pressures, magnified by mass social media, coming from the public and whose decision-making process is further weakened by our current hyper-partisan political climate. A decrease in resources has made Congress more vulnerable to outside special interests diminishing its ability to represent the will of the people. This in turn further weakens the public’s trust, leading some people to disengage from politics altogether and others to increase the pressure on their representatives.
External pressures, such as the threat of primary election competitors and partisan media, intensify these dynamics. The power imbalances inside Congress further impact its effectiveness.
A systems map can be used to highlight bright spots in the system, areas that could be reinforced to create a higher-functioning system, or to focus on what’s broken. For DF, the analysis guided their choice of interventions towards boosting bi-partisan working relationships and helping change the tenor of American politics more broadly.
In their search for what peacebuilders could potentially contribute to impact congressional dysfunctions, Communities in Transition (CIT) began by building a map of U.S.-based peacemakers to understand the size, spread and focus of conflict resolution practitioners across the country.
Modest actions have the potential to produce significant impact on the system.
The next step for our community of practitioners is to figure out where we should channel our collective power to create a healthier and more collaborative democratic system…or, to reinforce parallel structures of self-governance that create local convergence dynamics away from a center that has become destructive to our social fiber as Americans.
This event was organized by the IMCP Hill WG and hosted by the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution. Speakers included Chris Nehls, Research and Systems Associate, Governance Initiative with the Democracy Fund, Rob Ricigliano, Systems and Complexity Coach with The Omidyar Group and Nathalie Al-Zyoud, Senior Mediator with Communities in Transition.
The Omidyar Group. "Systems Practice" Workbook (November 2017)
Betsy Wright Hawkins. "Deconstructing Congressional Dysfunction: a Systems-based Approach" Democracy Fund (April 2016)
+Acumen. "Vibrant Public Square Case Study" Systems Practice Case Study