Our democracy is a complex political system made up of an intricate web of institutions, interest groups, individual leaders, and citizens — all connected in countless ways. Every attempt to influence and improve some aspect of this multifaceted system produces a ripple of other reactions. While some of these reactions may be predictable, many are not. This reality makes it difficult to anticipate what will happen when we try to help U.S. democracy work better.
At the Democracy Fund, we believe that widespread system change calls for the humility to acknowledge that there are no simple answers or silver bullets in a complicated world. We need to embrace the complexity of the problems we are facing, which requires that we experiment, learn, and iterate. Progress must be made through multi-pronged strategies that reinforce one another, are sustained over time, and reflect a comprehensive understanding of the major forces driving and constraining change.
Systems thinking is a way of gaining a deep, holistic understanding of a given field or topic.
By supporting comprehensive analysis, systems thinking offers a way to better identify root causes for problems we want to address, and to find intervention points that offer great opportunity to advance change. This approach has a long history in fields as varied as ecology, engineering, urban planning, family therapy, criminal justice, organizational development, and conflict analysis and resolution.
We use an approach called systems mapping to make sense of the complex problems we are working on and to open ourselves up to new, creative solutions. A systems map is different than a network map that describes how different individuals or organizations are connected to one another. Instead, a systems map describes the dynamic patterns (or feedback loops) that occur in a system, and indicates whether they are vicious or virtuous cycles of behavior and reaction.
Here’s an easy example: in the virtuous cycle illustrated above, we see how practicing free throws results in the athlete becoming a more skilled basketball player. Increased skills on the basketball court then contribute to the athlete enjoying playing the sport more, which in turn leads the athlete to practice more. And the cycle continues.
At the end of the day, a systems map is a rich story that lets us see how our world is interconnected and helps us be more effective in our attempts to improve it.
We believe that the process of creating systems maps will help us challenge and test our assumptions, as well as identify areas where we want to learn more. Once the relationships and causal pathways are created, we hope to see the opportunities for engagement in the system more clearly. Moreover, through systems thinking and the use of systems maps we hope to contribute to building a political system that is resilient to new shocks as well as recurring challenges. This approach can lead to substantive and lasting change, and goes much deeper than efforts to find silver bullet solutions that give a false sense of fixing complex problems.
We are currently working on three initial systems maps — one on local news and participation, one on the legislative branch of our federal government, and one on election administration. We hope these systems maps will contribute to smarter interventions and we anticipate that the maps will foster collaboration with our partners by transparently laying out our understanding of the problems we are working to address. In this way, each map will become a tool for telling a better, more comprehensive story about our strategies. The maps also have the potential to support greater opportunities for dialogue, negotiation, and insight by people and institutions involved with a given system. These first three maps will be followed by others that examine additional aspects of our political system.
Our map on the state of local news and public engagement and how it influences the health of our democracy.
Our map on how the actions and choices by legislators, journalists, Hill staffers, and citizens interact to create the current state of Congress.
As we apply systems thinking to our work, the Democracy Fund has decided to make our process highly participatory and iterative. We chose this approach because we know that even with the expertise of our staff, our understanding of the systems we work on is incomplete. By engaging diverse groups of experts, advocates, public officials, and peer funders, we gain much broader insight into a given system, which will hopefully allow for more creative solutions to emerge. Collectively, we can better harness the power of systems thinking as a means of taking a step back and being more comprehensive in our depiction of both problems and opportunities. We at the Democracy Fund are grateful to all those who have already contributed their time and expertise to our process and look forward to engaging more voices in the months to come.
We also have adopted an approach that is deeply iterative. By definition, you can never understand everything about a complex system given the sheer volume of dynamic relationships at play. The world is always changing, and as the system changes we need to change with it. We will regularly revisit our maps and our plans to reflect all that we learn as we experiment and intervene, making our systems maps adaptive, living tools.
We have only just begun to explore the possibilities of this approach, and we are excited about the potential of systems thinking to help reveal new connections, questions, and approaches to a set of challenges about which we care deeply. Over the next year, we look forward to hearing your feedback as we share our draft maps here.
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