Why Systems Thinking

At Democracy Fund, we use systems thinking to gain a deep, holistic understanding of the fields in which we work. This understanding helps us develop 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 method of analysis that focuses not just on the component parts of a system (such as individuals, organizations, or institutions), but rather how these components interact and relate to each other. That’s because systems thinking assumes that it is this interconnectedness that drives the way the system works.

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. There are no simple answers or silver bullets in this complex world.

To bring about systems change, we need to embrace the complexity of the problems we are facing. Every attempt to influence and improve some aspect of a 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 our democracy work better.

Our Systems Maps

We have created several systems maps, including maps on local news and participation, the legislative branch of our federal government, and our election system. In each of these, you’ll see the dynamic patterns (or feedback loops) that occur in a system — vicious, virtuous, and balancing cycles of behavior and reaction.

A quick primer on how to read these maps: Take the example of a “virtuous” cycle, where 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.

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. We have also seen these maps support greater opportunities for dialogue, negotiation, and insight by people and institutions involved with a given system.

We 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.

Explore Our Systems Maps

Click and explore to learn more about the complex systems that make up our democracy.

Please contact us if you have any questions or want to share feedback.


Election Administration & Voting

This systems map illustrates the interaction between election administration, election politics, and citizen trust and engagement.

We hope this map clearly reveals our understanding of the election system and serves as a guide for how we can improve the voter experience.

Explore the map

Congress & Public Trust

This systems map illustrates how the actions and choices by legislators, journalists, Hill staffers, and citizens interact to create the current state of Congress.

We hope this map will provide a holistic picture of congressional dysfunction and improve our understanding of how the institution can better fulfill its obligations to the American people.

Explore the map
Public Square

Local News & Participation

This systems map illustrates the state of local news and public engagement and how it influences the health of our democracy.

We hope this map will bring new understanding to all who want to support active citizens and vibrant media as vital elements in an open and just democracy.

Explore the map
Public Square

Digital Democracy Initiative Core Story

This systems map describes how digital tools and technologies have transformed our public square in recent years for better and for worse.

We hope this map will help provide a shared language, creating new opportunities for dialogue, negotiation, and ideas that can improve the health of our democracy.

Explore the map
Democracy Fund
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Washington, DC 20036