Why is systems thinking important for tackling child poverty?
Exhorting different arms of government to work together is a tired theme. It is obvious that public services would function better if demand was not passed around, if errors by one service did not make things harder for others, and if benefits accruing to a different part of government were not a barrier to change. These issues have always been a problem: given the scale, inertia, incentives and politics, they are far from easy to address. Nonetheless, taking a systems perspective highlights how fundamental a challenge better co-ordination within government is when it comes to complex social problems.
New Philanthropy Capital/Lankelly Chase Systems change: A guide to what it is and how to do it
Whilst ‘joined up’ government is a siren call in almost all subjects these days, it is particularly important in tackling child poverty.
Save the Children and The Bevan Foundation Children in severe poverty in Wales: an agenda for action
There is no single magic bullet, and to make large inroads into poverty would require concerted action on a number of fronts.
A wide range of structural, household and individual-level factors play a role in determining whether or not a household is in poverty. And a very wide range of policy areas and organisations (public, private and third sector) will need to work together to make changes needed to significantly reduce child poverty in the long term.
The driver diagram published in Every Child, Every Chance is deliberately simplified, for ease of communication. But the reality is extremely complex.
What is the child poverty system map?
The system map is a way of representing visually the wide range of factors (or variables) that influence levels of child poverty, and the relationships between them. It is intended to help us develop our shared understanding of child poverty and what influences it, examine the evidence about links between different factors, and act as a key reference for people looking to address the systemic factors that influence child poverty.
The child poverty system has been visualised in a particular format: a causal loop diagram (CLD). Causal loop diagramming is a commonly used tool for analysing systems. For example, the obesity system map developed as part of the UK Government’s Foresight Programme is an example of a causal loop diagram.
This type of systems mapping is also being used as part of a joint wellbeing economy project between the Scottish Government and Clackmannanshire Council. More about the approach can be found on the SIPHER consortium website.
In a causal loop diagram, the relationships between variables are represented by arrows. A solid line arrow means that the relationship is ‘positive’: this means an increase in one variable causes another variable to increase too. A dashed line means that the relationship is ‘negative’: this means an increase in one variable causes another variable to decrease.
Variables need to be selected in such a way that they can take on high and low values. For this reason, categorical variables such as gender, ethnicity or employment sector are not suitable to include in a causal loop diagram.
Different elements of a causal loop diagram
A causal loop diagram is one way to model the relationship between variables in a system. In a CLD, the direction of influence is recorded along with the nature of the relationship between variables. If an increase in one variable causes another variable to increase too, this will be marked as positive, and if an increase in one variable causes another variable to decrease this link will be marked as negative.
This allows us to identify:
- leverage points
- feedback loops
- causal cascades.
There are two types of feedback loops.
Reinforcing: if a variation in one node propagates through the loop and returns to the original node with the same type (positive or negative) of variation. For example, sugar cravings and sugar intake form a reinforcing loop. When sugar cravings increase, the reaction is to eat something sugary which increases sugar intake. After sugar intake increases, the addictiveness of sugar causes sugar cravings to also increase.
Balancing: if a variation in one node propagates through the loop and returns to the original node with the opposite type (positive or negative) of variation. For example, a daily sugar limit could be introduced in the loop above, and if a person is suitably motivated to stick to the target then as the sugar gap between intake and limit decreases, their sugar cravings will decrease, causing sugar intake to decrease. As sugar intake decreases the sugar gap will increase.
Although guides to causal loop diagramming often focus on the loops, many interesting cause and effect relationships do not form a tidy loop.
Why are we developing a causal loop diagram for child poverty?
The child poverty system is complex, making it important to evaluate how policies are working together as a system to achieve the targets. We are interested in trialling tools to help us develop our shared understanding of child poverty, interrogate the evidence about links between different factors, and act as a key reference for people looking to address the systemic factors that influence child poverty.
A logic model has previously been developed by the the Scottish Government Equality and Social Justice Analytical unit showing the connections within each key driver of the child poverty targets. The child poverty CLD is based on this logic model. A detailed explanation of the nodes and links used to develop the system map can be found here.
In this project three main uses of CLDs have been identified:
- Communicating complexity.
- Making sense of complexity.
- Supporting the development of a strategy to intervene in a complex system. This could include identifying who the people and organisations would be who would intervene on different things across this system to collectively make the greatest impact.
How to navigate the system map
The system map can be found at http://data.gov.scot/child-poverty-system-map/
The legend on the left hand side shows which colours have been used for each section of the diagram, and how leverage points, positive and negative links and balancing and reinforcing links have been shown. If you can’t see the entire legend then hover your mouse over it and zoom in and out using the scroller on your mouse.
There is some functionality to interact with the diagram. You can:
- Zoom in and out: Either use the scroller on your mouse, or use the plus and minus buttons at the bottom right of the screen.
- Move the diagram: The entire diagram can be moved by either clicking on the background and dragging, or using the arrow buttons on at the bottom left of the screen.
- Move parts of the diagram: Each node can be moved individually by clicking and dragging it around the screen. The other nodes will then bounce around a little bit to adjust to give you the best view of the diagram.
- Highlight a section of the diagram: Use the dropdown in the top left corner.
- Highlight a single variable, along with its immediate links: Click on the variable.
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