Scale of change
We choose reform when we believe that the degree of change is so steep and the distance to travel so significant that the current system will be unable to get there incrementally. Continuous improvement is no longer a viable approach because we need to change so many things about the system, and they need to change together or simultaneously.
Systems theory differentiates between complicated and complex systems. Complicated systems can be disassembled and their individual parts and interactions can be understood. This doesn’t mean change is easy, but programmes and portfolios of initiatives can implement change in a planned way with reasonable confidence in the outcomes it will achieve.
In a complicated system, we can usually chart a course with a high degree of confidence - there is still a reform challenge in implementing the plan effectively, but the plan itself is clear. Creating a reform programme can help to explain why so much needs to change, and provide a structure to manage the process.
Complex systems are more dynamic, and emergent behaviours arising between participants and parts of the system mean that merely understanding the parts is not enough to understand the system as a whole. Complex systems resist simple fixes, because the way the system behaves is constantly changing and it’s almost impossible to keep up. Attempts to change the system results in a game of ‘whack-a-mole’, where the impacts then bubble up elsewhere in the system.
In a complex system we can’t always chart a course, we can only set an intended outcome, assemble the right team and gear, and have confidence in our navigational tools and ability to travel together. Creating a reform programme is essential to hold the intent, navigation and journey management steady over an extended period of time.
There is a Māori proverb that says “kā mate kainga tahi, kā ora kainga rua” (when one home dies, a second lives) which relates to reform, as in ancient times Māori would burn down old Pā sites whilst building the new — the two systems would coexist. During reform processes, there are two systems coexisting: the new one being created, and the old one in decline. The reform programme must manage the decommissioning of the old system – which is often entrenched and has proven itself hard to disrupt – in a way that maintains performance during the transition period, without constraining the change that needs to happen to build the new system.
Is there always a need for reform?
During our discussions and research we canvassed whether there will always be a need for reform.
Previous reforms haven’t always delivered what was necessary, and the success factors for good reform are not easy to achieve. Given the high cost of reform, it can be argued that resources could be better applied to point solutions, or direct investment to the participants and recipients of a system’s activities.
“We don’t recognise that reforms have a lifecycle. Now, are we creating something new, or innovating on an existing idea? We keep coming up with new things, instead of innovating on pre-existing ideas and learning from those cycles.” – Matt Tukaki.
There is a case to be made that continued high levels of reform point to a different failure, because they suggest that the system was unable to develop organically in response to changing demand, expectations or external conditions. One of the objectives of effective reform should always be to leave the system able to adapt and evolve better than before.
However, most people we spoke to see reform as an enduring part of our landscape, at least for now. We are in an era of unprecedented change, facing longstanding, unresolved equity issues and challenges of a scale and complexity we have not encountered before. We are increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of our communities and countries, and of social, economic, and environmental systems. We must continue to evolve, and we will need to make the punctuated leaps forward that reform enables. A common sentiment is that a longer-term outlook, bringing with us the good ideas and lessons learned from our past could make our way forward feel less lurching. Ka mua, ka muri – looking back in order to move forward.
“Our colonial history is an important and contemporaneous part of the fabric of our society and most certainly linked to the perverse outcomes Māori experience on most social and economic measures in Aotearoa New Zealand."4 - Dr Moana Jackson.
So, reform is here to stay – in some shape or form. If we are to realise its promise, we must increase our odds of success.