Planning your system change legacy

Claire Baxter, the director of Richmond Baxter Ltd, shares how a simple system-change framework is helping Small Steps Big Changes in Nottingham plan their legacy.

The challenge

Claire Baxter

As Small Steps Big Changes (SSBC) is approaching its programme end, the focus on legacy is increasing. The team, parents and partners are, together, making system changes. The challenge with such a complex agenda is to decide ‘what next?’

With the clock ticking, SSBC wanted a quick way to organise their thoughts. They set themselves the task of:

  1. Clearly summarising programme achievements.
  2. Testing if these would make a lasting change.
  3. Setting priorities to maximise their impact within the remaining timeframe of The National Lottery Community Fund’s ‘A Better Start’ programme.

The solution?

The team turned to FSG’s Water of Systems Change, a curiously named framework developed in the States to help philanthropists gauge the impact of their social investments. It states that complex problems do not lend themselves to simple solutions, and so system change is about “shifting the conditions that are holding a problem in place”.

For change to be successful and sustained FSG argues that change must take place across three tangible and three less visible aspects of a system. These include ‘mental models’ – our long-held beliefs about a problem or population, ways of working, and what is and isn’t possible.

The six conditions of system change that hold a problem in place

Source: The Water of Systems Change, FSG, June 2018

I used the model with my colleague, Helen Platts at Northern Lights Learning & Solutions, to design interview questions for parents, partners, and the team. We designed workshops to share the insight and help SSBC think through implications. As this was an innovative approach, we tested it on two key areas of SSBC’s system change components - Coproduction and Father Inclusivity.

Did it work?

Views were mixed. Some felt they “already thought in this way”. This included some who, never-the-less, valued a rare opportunity to talk through their work trying to shift beliefs and power. Others saw such ‘intangibles’ in a fresh light, newly connecting these to the system change agenda. This meant that in using the model a lot of information emerged - the downside was this gave workshop participants a lot to digest.

The model helped test for lasting change because it identified the nature of remaining challenges. Critically, the model illustrated how these differed between the two strands, helping SSBC decide how best to use its remaining time:

  • Good networks with ‘buy in’ to coproduction means SSBC can turn its focus to tangible actions. The team intends to share their learning by developing a toolkit that will help partners understand the value of coproduction, embed it into and improve current practice across the system.
  • Entrenched societal ‘mental models’ regarding the role of fathers lends itself to a different tack. Here, SSBC believe continued workforce training and upping campaign work on the back of test and learn activities is needed to further challenge perceptions and power bases.

Would we recommend you use it? Definitely, but allow plenty of time to analyse and reflect on the volume of achievements and challenges you will uncover!

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.

Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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Visit the A Better Start website to find out more.