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Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Learning, People and culture, Projects

Government has a responsibility to help people with complex problems. Supporting people who've lost their ability to work due to poor health or disability, for example, is not easy.

For someone who is struggling to make ends meet, the last thing they care about is how government is organised – they just want services to work and respond to their needs.  But the way government has evolved over the years, into separate, sometimes competing departments makes using a joined-up approach to solve citizens' problems really hard.

We need to fix this and we think now is the right time to start.

The Systems Unit helps people across the public sector apply systems thinking to complex problems. 

A different way of thinking about complex problems

In early 2019, we started working on a different approach for delivering services that work better for citizens, called the Strategic Framework. It is an approach that puts citizens first and delivers results by creating joined-up solutions. We want to bring people together across government. We want to involve everyone, the whole system when we design solutions, with all the benefits that a diverse community of ideas can bring. 

We believe systems thinking has the potential to help solve the most complex problems of our time, from healthcare to climate change. Goals like sustainability, security, prosperity and wellbeing cut across departmental boundaries and touch on the lives of every citizen. They demand a system-wide approach.

Getting the right people in the room

For those who are leaders, through the National Leadership Centre (NLC) and the Public Sector Leadership Group (PSLG), we are developing new ways to grow cross-government collaboration at the strategic level, bringing together the diverse talents and experience of people like Perm Secs, Director Generals, Chief Constables and heads of NHS trusts.

And we’re also supporting a programme of demonstrator projects to show how solutions that cut across departmental boundaries could work. One of these looks at the experience of prison leavers and the social problems they face, such as reoffending. By getting the right people in the room, leaders, policy officials, charities, and frontline staff to hear directly from prison leavers about their experiences, we can foster a sense of shared ownership of the problem, and start to plan solutions that cut across the divisions within government. 

Help us build a movement

Systems leadership is not just for leaders. It’s about us all reimagining the way we think about government. 

Help us do it. Leave a comment, share your ideas and get in touch below. 

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  1. Comment by Benjamin Taylor posted on

    You asked for feedback and engagement - I have blogged on this here:

    Exciting to see this emerge - more power to your elbows!

    • Replies to Benjamin Taylor>

      Comment by Wes Hinckes posted on


      I've developed a platform which brings communities, the state, civil society and business into a new kind of relationship oriented around the needs of place.

      Through our strategy we create the potential for public service transformation and the normalising of future skills such as design thinking and new ways of working and organising.

      Is there someone I could email within your team?

      Many thanks,

      Socially Enterprising CIC

    • Replies to Benjamin Taylor>

      Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

      Thanks Benjamin! Our team appreciates the challenge and our elbows appreciate the support. We'll be blogging more on the points you made in the coming months.

    • Replies to Benjamin Taylor>

      Comment by Rachel Cashman posted on

      Hello, I have just tried to email to share with you my interest in this methodological approach, support the activities of the team and introduce some of the work I am doing with public sector leaders and international academics pertaining to psychological safety at work - critical to address when dealing with complex issues. Very grateful to be able to join appropriate mailing lists and/or attend events, meet with relevant colleagues. All best wishes,

  2. Comment by Paul Eastwood posted on

    It is great that you have set this up - it would be fantastic if we had an opportunity to get really involved in these discussions - is there such an opportunity to meet?

    • Replies to Paul Eastwood>

      Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

      Hi Paul, thanks for visiting our blog. Sorry that you had difficulty emailing - I've sent you an email directly putting you in contact with the right person.

  3. Comment by David Norton posted on

    This is great news and I look forward to seeing what happens. Can we in the wider ST community get involved?

    • Replies to David Norton>

      Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

      Hi Roger, Apologies that the email didn't work. I've emailed you with the relevant details.

      • Replies to Sarah Stewart>

        Comment by Roger James posted on

        It seems the link does not work. Is there a place where we can register our interest in this initiative?

        • Replies to Roger James>

          Comment by Sarah Stewart posted on

          Hi Roger, thanks for flagging this. Do you mean the email address? I just checked and tested it and it appears to be working. Could you try again and let me know how you get on?

  4. Comment by Andrew Wright posted on

    The Association for Project Management has a Systems Thinking Specific Interest Group with a history back to 2013.

  5. Comment by Dave Adams posted on

    Hi. Very promising to see central government promoting the benefits of ST. My question is - how can *we* get involved? I work in ST for a local authority, and we regularly experience the organisational barriers listed above in 'get the right people in the room', but we also experience barriers to doing the right thing that are a product of central government guidance/rules. Will the systems unit be collaborating with the ST community across the public sector? (not that it's homogenous, or monolithic).


  6. Comment by Andrew Wright posted on

    There's a brief video on why systems thinking is so valuable on Youtube, put together by the ST SIG at APM:

    There are also several brief articles on the APM blog, the most recent of which is at:

  7. Comment by John Evans posted on

    Can I suggest that systems analysis requires that you adopt a much clearer and more precise style of thinking and communicating if you are to arrive at a shared and motivationally aligned understanding of any domain.

    The tried and tested method is to;

    identify the essential nature of the things in that domain (ontology) - their essential and optional properties - identity, name, habits, beliefs, capabilities, priorities, knowledge, perceptual framing, beliefs, etc

    describe the things' relationsips with each other (this will be closely connected to their properties capabilities etc)

    assemble these relationships into networks - study the properties of that network (network analysis - vested interests dependencies, centrality, distance, etc)

    look at the system level emergent behaviours the can arise in such a structure.

    then think about what you want to try to do about it.

    The tried and tested language that systems analysts (data analysts) use to think and communicate, is based on semantic triplets ( see Codds 3rd normal form (and 4th normal form) - an academic approach to identifying which collection of attributes/features/properties to group together into things and then sets - thankfully a human brain can do this automatically with a little guidance and practice).

    Things have named properties - described by a value. (I am 6ft tall.)
    Things have named relationships with other things described by properties and values. (I own a Ford Connect Van)
    Things are members of named groups of similar things based on the degree of similarity in their essential natures. (I am a human)

    so for example

    In early 2019, we started working on a different (this is an unconnected undescribed relationsip - different from what - different in what way?) approach for delivering services that work better (ditto - better in what respect, on what value scale, in what circumstance) for citizens, called the Strategic Framework (is this just a name for this way of working - or is it the beginning of a list of essential properties: strategic, framework - if so it would be great to list all the essential features of this new way of working - partial lists are of very little use). It is an approach that puts citizens first (first - before what other class of thing - who is second, third?) and delivers results (that is a big meaningless vagueness) by creating joined-up (coherent integrated holistic?) solutions. We want to bring people together (in what dimensions - time, space, emotion, world view, perceptual model, value system???) across government (???). We want to involve everyone (everyone??? babies? Putin? surely not), the whole system when we (everyone is to be involved but 'we' are designing the solution - so who is this 'we'??) design solutions, with all the benefits (so what exactly are these benefits - list them all - are there any dis-benefits of having everyone involved - of course there are so - why have you not mentioned them) that a diverse community (diverse and community have oxymoronic roots - div / com - so what does this incomprehensible phrase mean?) of ideas can bring.

    I am very glad to see the Cabinet Office adopting systems thinking.

  8. Comment by Trilly Chatterjee posted on

    Congratulations on becoming a thing! Very interested in getting involved in future events (offering digital/NHS perspective, but also broad enthusiasm for systems thinking approaches), and can certainly spread the word. Please let me know how I can get involved.

  9. Comment by Richard Bolden posted on

    My colleagues at I at Bristol Leadership and Change Centre at the University of the West of England are researching and evaluating systems thinking, systems change and systems leadership in a range of contexts, including NHS, public health and cross-sector partnerships. More than ever, the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the need to develop our capacity to embed such approaches in all aspects of public service and beyond. We have been supporting the National Leadership Centre over the past year and are keen to connect with others working in this space. For some further reflections, and links to relevant work please visit: We look forward to continuing the conversation and supporting its implementation into policy and practice.


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