This article was previously published in the Danish weekly Mandag Morgen.
Public sector executives can begin taking greater responsibility for creating real change for Danes. Their tasks include practicing the concept of “systemic contexts”.
“Climate change was the systemic cause of Hurricane Sandy,” wrote researcher George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California at Berkeley, in the introduction of a recent article published in the American online news website, Huffington Post.
In the article, he provokes the many pundits in the United States who claimed in the wake of the devastating hurricane that climate change may have played a role, but that it was not the cause of the devastating hurricane.
Lakoff argues that climate change was the cause – if we understand the kind of cause we are talking about. This requires that we understand the difference between two types of causation: systemic and direct.
Systemic causation may sound rather abstract, but according to Lakoff it is quite familiar: Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Drunk driving is a systemic cause of traffic accidents. And last, but not least, sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.
Direct causation is also well known: Hitting someone in the face is the direct cause of the pain they experience. Throwing a rock through a window is the direct cause of the broken window, etc.
According to Lakoff, the challenge is that direct causation is straightforward to understand and control, but the systemic causes are what really matter. Thus they are important to understand.
A systemic cause can be one of many and can be due to a variety of factors. It is often indirect and works through a chain of relationships. It may reflect a probability or arise through a feedback mechanism.
Public sector managers’ responsibility
Why is all of this interesting to managers of public organisations (or advisors to managers in public organisations)? To quote Lakoff:
“In general, causation in ecosystems, biological systems, economic systems, and social systems tends not to be direct, but is no less causal. And because it is not direct causation, it requires all the greater attention if it is to be understood and its negative effects controlled.”
In other words: Public sector managers are responsible for creating change via systemic causation. This has implications for their approach to management and leadership, whether they are responsible for reducing accidents at work, preventing food scandals, improving well-being in day care institutions or creating innovation and growth in the Danish economy.
One of the most common excuses I hear from public sector executives when it comes to creating tangible results for citizens and society is that there are so many other factors in addition to the efforts of the municipality, region, agency, or ministry, all of which impact the success of a desired change. For example, the efforts of other organisations, companies and people, economic trends, etc.
Lakoff would respond that this is precisely the point: Public sector results – results that must be created in a complex and changing reality – are not usually about making a direct impact on the world.
Management and systemic causation
If you want to strengthen your ability to lead through systemic causation, there are three things you should do:
Firstly, you should establish a clear overview of the system or the network of stakeholders that comprises the cause-effect chains in your area of responsibility. My experience is that public sector managers rarely do this formally – but why not do this using graphic or digital mapping, for example?
Secondly, you should work consciously and strategically to influence all of the stakeholders in the area, thereby increasing the systemic impact on the issue you are working to address. For example, by actively seeking to influence all stakeholders that have any sort of connection to the set of relationships that create or diminish a safe working environment at Danish workplaces, the factors that promote or hinder our food safety, the stakeholders and actions that affect the way our children develop and thrive in day care institutions, etc. This may also involve targeting the complex relationships that ultimately form the competitive and innovative power of our universities and businesses.
Yes, this is already being partially done today. But no matter what political area you look at, it is not being done with sufficient clarity or direction.
Thirdly and lastly, an acknowledgement of systemic causes entails taking responsibility for the effects that are ultimately created for citizens, companies and society – despite the fact that they do not occur as a direct result of decisions or actions over which you have control. Taking that kind of responsibility would be fitting for many public sector managers.