It was over a year ago that The Guardian informed us of ‘a warning from the Local Government Association (LGA) that councils will soon need to make deep cuts to essential services. This will include anything from road repairs, parks, children’s centres, waste collection, leisure centres and libraries.’ Yes, one year ago. At that time, a third of local authorities expected their parks to decline within three years, things like meals on wheels and debt advice centres had already disappeared and managers were being forced into ‘one or the other’ dilemmas. (https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/feb/28/uk-government-cuts-parks-libraries-local-government-nhs-prisons)
The NHS, the world’s fifth largest employer was, and still is, being disrupted by endless reorganisations.(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/18/10-truths-about-britains-health-service).
In 2016, health expenditure in the UK was 9.75 per cent of GDP. This compared to 17.21 per cent in the USA, 11.27 per cent in Germany, 10.98 per cent in France, 10.50 per cent in the Netherlands, 10.37 per cent in Denmark and 10.34 per cent in Canada. (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)
In 2016, the NHS was dealing with over 1 million patients every 36 hours (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)
Sobering, isn’t it? We were warned back then that public services required better management. But what? Where to start? And how?
What if there was a way to look at public services how we might look at large, interactive socio-ecological systems? What if there was a way to look at public services that would help us to consider their ongoing co-evolution within a complex environment?
Well, after using the viable system model and blending it with other systems thinking approaches for over 10 years in public services, I believe there is such a way and I think the idea is beautifully explained in the teachings from the book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’ by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker.
Whilst it does not always explicitly mention public services in the book it isn’t hard to apply the thinking to the public services context.
The book talks about ‘open systems’ – systems that are open to exchanges of energy and information with the environment with which they co-evolve. It tells us that, ‘all living systems are networks of smaller components, and the web of life as a whole is a multi-layered structure of living systems nestling within other living systems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2001, p6) which sounds somewhat like our public services to me. These ‘living systems’ may remain stable for certain periods of time but they do occasionally go through points of critical instability, where new forms of order might spontaneously emerge. This means that the ‘state’ of the system is not predictable and what is created may be dependent upon the systems structure and the path of development when new order emerges – Capra, 2008 (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p8). Again, this is sounding very familiar with my experiences of public services. These systems are otherwise known as a Complex Adaptive System. Espinosa and Walker explain that complex adaptive systems are open systems whose elements interact dynamically and nonlinearly. They exhibit unpredictable behaviours, are affected by positive and negative feedback loops and co-evolve with their environment. They demonstrate ‘path dependence’ i.e. they have a history, an emergent structure, they self-organise when they are far from equilibrium, or at the edge of chaos. As a result of self-organisation, these systems exhibit emergent properties. They have learning networks, which are able to co-operate to manage their resources and develop adaptive behaviours. This co-operation emerges in the course of reciprocation strategies, rather than evolving from some sort of central control. Now, again, that sounds to me a little like the direction of travel being encouraged in public service transformation. At the moment the central control still predominates but I can foresee a time where this might be less so.
But wait, those versed in management cybernetics (where the viable system model sits) might now be saying that whilst ‘cybernetics is about how systems regulate themselves, evolve and learn and its high spot is the question of how they organise themselves’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p11) aren’t they closed systems? A ‘closed system’ being one which has coherent, closed networks of relationships?’ So how can the VSM be useful in a situation that has the hallmarks of, and appears to be behaving somewhat like or moving towards, an open system?
This is where the writings of Espinosa and Walker explain the beautifully complimentary view of the complex adaptive system and viable system frameworks working in harmony together. Viable systems are open to energy and information and co-evolve with their environment. However, they are organisationally closed. Their organisational patterns and evolution are self-referential, self-organising and self-regulated. However, when we observe from a cybernetic perspective, we can consider the viable system model but then we can extend our understanding by considering its dynamic interaction with the environment in which it sits and therefore the viable system’s characteristics as a complex adaptive system. ‘The CAS and the VSM are complimentary frameworks that explain issues of complexity management (VSM) and complex evolving behaviours (CAS)’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011. P15).
So, for me, over time, the viable system model has been hugely eye-opening and one of the most powerful ways to expose understanding of how a complex situation is working. A viable system can be described as, ‘a system which is able to adapt and maintain an independent existence as it co-evolves with a changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13) It is always embedded in, and composed of, other viable systems.
Espinosa and Walker explain that Stafford Beer, the developer of the viable system model understood that, ‘the focus of VSM anlaysis is to observe the ability of the organisational system to handle the complexity of tasks required to fulfil its purpose in the context of a highly complex changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13)
Stafford Beer argues that for a system to be sustainable, proper structures need to be in place. These are neither centralised nor decentralised but have the right balance between the two and are capable of dealing with the complexity in their environment. He sees planning and policy based on government being the facilitator of radical change which emerges at a local level (Espinosa, Walker, 2011). Viable systems have adaptability and flexibility, awareness and self-reliance and have the capacity to innovate and induce change in other systems in pursuit of their own purpose.
Think about that for a moment………. If integrated teams, and other such teams, got this right, their reciprocation may form a structural coupling that allows all organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way so that the purposes of the wider whole can be fulfilled. Espinosa and Walker tell us that sustainability is not about constancy but is about the ability of the living system to co-evolve with its environment. Could the right balance between centralised and decentralised structures and emergent local level change move us towards a more sustainable way of providing public services?
I think this is what we may already be seeing in some areas. But can these teams engage in the right kind of decision making that does not put anyone in a catastrophic domain? I’m not sure that we are there yet, with this one. That kind of decision making is different to what currently exists and may take a little more building of trustful relationships, different competencies and different ways of evaluating success across the whole of the network before it comes to fruition. Our idea of governance may well need to be different before governmental and non-governmental agencies can make effective decisions together. As Espinosa and Walker inform us, there currently may not even be a suitably acknowledged theory of governance to take account of the concept of sustainability. So, when public sector managers are troubled about how to enable this new world to ‘work’ isn’t it acceptable that, at the moment, they might not be 100% sure, as everyone tries to learn their way forward together?
The VSM, taking its inspiration from the natural world, helps us to identify structural factors which may constrain viability. It guides us through investigating how the system manages its interactions, identifying learning problems caused by communication issues that affect the system’s ability to deal with complexity, how our mental models affect what we observe and how to do a rapid, but very accurate, diagnosis of complex systems. It helps us to understand that empowerment enables the quick responses required for co-evolution and that our organisations are currently likely to be built for a much less complex world and their current structures are not adaptable or flexible enough for any kind of rapid response.
The VSM helps us to consider conflicts of interest and how to maintain stability, working towards collaboration rather than competition. It encourages us to understand that performance can be better together than if we were working in isolation. It supports us in understanding how joint management decisions, across a number of organisations, could activate a support network if one organisation becomes a risk to the cohesion of the whole. Of course, here is where we need a different kind of performance measurement and decision making, as we all know what it’s like when organisations have opposing performance indicators that encourage perverse behaviours of ‘self-preservation’ of the individual organisation.
The VSM helps us to bridge strategic criteria across different levels and consider effective bargains around financial, technological, physical and skill-based resources. This may, however, give some challenge to what are current ‘corporate norms.’ New ‘norms’ will need to develop over time. Questions we may well need to consider are: What is the new context of the whole? What is the identity of the whole? What raft of creative and feasible strategies and policies are required to realise this new identity?
Espinosa and Walker are clear that sustainability will take cognitive, structural and political change. Policies will require a different focus around ‘deliberately building trust, understanding leadership in a collaborative context, building co-ordination mechanisms so that true collaboration can flourish and identifying critical measures for sustainability.’ We will need to observe and measure in as real-time as possible. Risk will need to be considered differently. We will need different information flows and we will need to make and assess decisions differently. Autonomy and empowerment will be critical to progress and we will need to be able to openly learn from mistakes, without fear of reprisal. We will require a new perspective of control that aims for a culture of respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity.
Seeing and enacting public services as a dynamic, adaptive, self-organising whole will no doubt be an enormous challenge. There is, however, as we have learned, a model of thinking that can help us to understand the emerging patterns of complex interactions. A systems thinking and complexity approach is exceptionally powerful and ‘the VSM is unprecedented in its power to diagnose and solve complex organisational problems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011).
Personally, I strongly believe that whilst you can use consultants to undertake a VSM diagnostic for you, the systems thinking and complexity way of understanding is far more powerful when it becomes part of your culture. In my opinion, the better use of specific systems thinking consultants is to use us to guide you through how to apply a systems thinking and complexity mindset. Use us as facilitators of a process of learning in your context. In my experience, this takes more than a one-off interaction. You may need our help and support over a period of time. But, we can help you to get started and we can guide you towards a way of considering your situation that will give powerful insights and help you and your partnerships to learn your way forward together.
Espinosa, A, Walker, J 2011 A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application. Imperial College Press