Approaching Democracy as a Complex System

August 10, 2015

Our democracy is a complex political system made of an intricate web of institutions, interest groups, individual leaders, and citizens that are connected to each other in countless ways. Every attempt to influence some aspect of this complex system produces a ripple of other reactions – some may be predictable, but many are not. This can make it difficult to anticipate what will happen when we intervene to try to make our democracy work better.

Our team at the Democracy Fund is not the first to find that it is easy to fall into the trap of oversimplifying the challenges faced by our democracy as we endeavor to strengthen it. While we all know that democracy is never fixed when a court case is won or a new law is signed, we have found that our strategies often fail to recognize how fixing one piece of the system will be inadequate for achieving our long-term aims. The passage of major legislation, whether it is McCain-Feingold or the Help America Vote Act, is usually met with legal challenges, loop holes, and resistance, which undermine our goals and can lead to unanticipated results that are sometimes worse than the problems with which we began.

Adopting a Systems Approach

The answer is not to give up hope or to abandon our cause. Instead, we believe that widespread system change calls for the humility to acknowledge that there are no simple answers or silver bullets in a complex 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 more holistic understanding of the major forces driving and constraining change.

One method for avoiding the trap of oversimplification is called “systems thinking,” which refers to the practice of seeking to understand and influence complex systems. The Democracy Fund, along with some of the other organizations within Omidyar Group, is adopting an approach informed by systems thinking to improve our ability to achieve our goals of making our democracy work better. To this end, our team has begun a process of documenting our understanding of the dynamic systems in which we are working.

We are using a tool 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, whether they are vicious or virtuous cycles of behavior and reaction.

Take an arms race for example. In this type of vicious cycle, one party buys arms because it feels threatened by another. This leads the other to feel threatened and to buy arms, which in turn leads the first party to buy even more arms. The result is an endless chain of escalating reactions.

The stories we tell ourselves about the world around us determine how we try to act in it. At the end of the day, a systems map is really just a rich story that lets us see how our world is interconnected and helps us be more effective in our attempts to improve it. To better understand what this kind of map that focuses on dynamic feedback loops can look like, take a look at these maps created by the Hawaii Quality of Life initiative.

Iterative and Participatory Maps

As we apply systems thinking to our work, the Democracy Fund has decided to make our process highly participatory and iterative. We chose a participatory approach because we know that even with the expertise of our staff, our understanding of the systems on which we are working is incomplete. By engaging diverse groups of experts, advocates, public officials, and peer funders, we gain much broader insight into the systems on which we are working, which will hopefully allow for more creative solutions to emerge. Collectively, we can 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. Perhaps, more to the point, a complex world is always changing. As the system changes, we need to change with it. We will need to 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.

Beginning to Map Our Systems

We are currently working on three initial systems maps—one on election administration, one on local journalism, and one on the legislative branch of our federal government. We expect these systems maps to 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 on which we are working. In this way, each map will become a tool for telling a better, more comprehensive story about our strategies. The systems maps also have the potential to support greater opportunities for dialogue, negotiation, and insight. These first three maps will be followed by others that look at additional aspects of our political system.

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 systems mapping more specifically, we hope to focus on building a political system that is resilient to new and recurring challenges and shocks, rather than trying to find silver bullet solutions that give a false sense of fixing a problem.

We have only just begun this journey of ours, but 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 on this blog.

Stay tuned for more to come.

(Special thanks to Tiffany Griffin, our Manager of Learning and Impact, for spear heading our work on systems thinking and working with me to produce this introductory post on our approach. I’d also like to thank Rob RiciglianoOmidyar Group’s systems and complexity coach – as well as his colleague Karen Grattan for their guidance as the Democracy Fund has approached its systems work.)

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