This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Better Deliberative and Participatory Democratic Community Based Governance through Systems Thinking

This blog post is on incorporating principles of systems thinking into a system of direct deliberative and participatory community based governance by using a systems thinking model, Participatory Democracy with Systems Thinking.  The concept of deliberative and participatory community based governance was first discussed in the early stages of this effort with Using Online Communities to encourage Direct Democracy for On-The-Ground Communities and was related with resources found under the People’s Governance in California and Community Governance wiki-pages.

Systems thinking has also been previously discussed.  Resources gathered and organized so far and related blog posts can be found under the Systems Thinking Approaches wiki-page.  However, until the blog post before this one, those blog posts had been about system thinking working within various areas of concern related to new community paradigms with a vantage point looking from the outside in.  This post and the one before it are the first time using system thinking means of conveying concepts through system thinking models. The last post focused more on factors regarding the mechanisms of systems thinking. This post will expand upon that to include direct deliberative and participatory community based governance. 

The last post dealt with a systems thinking model developed by Gene Bellinger. Gene runs the (STiA) Systems Thinking in Action LinkedIn group, and a host of other systems thinking learning resources on the Internet including STiA Brain and Systems Thinking in Action Wiki. Gene used to make a systems thinking (ST) model that told a story by unfolding the presentation of elements and links making up the system under consideration.  This particular ST model dealt with factors that would likely encourage groups or organizations to use and continue using systems thinking principles.  From a systems thinking perspective, few people could make a better argument for this than Gene.

Any model not made private in can be ‘cloned’ or copied, so I cloned Gene’s model and renamed it, A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking, other than that, I made no other changes.  Gene had used his model in an online community discussion regarding the future of the now Systems Thinking in Action LinkedIn group, so it was designed to have a relevant impact upon the nature of the group.

My purpose in cloning the model was to demonstrate how systems thinking could be used by a group as a means of collaborative communication, particularly in comparison with written means such as blog posts.  The last blog post provided ‘a build a watch to tell the time’ explanation of the A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking model. This was, of course, redundant but it made explicit how the story could be presented by the model unfolding. It also made the point that writing as opposed to the ST model was far less efficient in conveying the information.

The Participatory Democracy with Systems Thinking model is going to be allowed to speak more for itself.  It works in the same manner as the previous model.  Clicking the [Step Forward] button at the bottom right hand corner of the model’s page moves the ‘story’ one step forward revealing elements and links, developing their relationship. Relevant information is provided at the bottom bar of the model with each step. Additional information can be found in each element (or in each link), by placing the mouse over the element and clicking on the ‘i’ icon that is revealed. The model will demonstrate the potential relationship between systems thinking and direct deliberative participatory democracy. This blog post will deal more directly with pertinent aspects of the model itself. 

I will describe some of the differences between the two models. When you open up the Participatory Democracy with Systems Thinking model, the embedded A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking is already on the page in a dimmed state. I kept the A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking model almost unchanged, wanting to show how it is possible to build upon models to develop and expand upon ideas. 

Instead of starting with ‘A Better World’ as the end goal, the new model starts with ‘Civic Community’, which is quickly explained to be made up of various community and civic groups.  A more relevant point is that the system is then bifurcated into two separate dynamic subsystems, direct deliberative participatory democracy and systems thinking. 

This bifurcation is made readily apparent with this latest ST model, whereas with the A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking model, the group dynamics were somewhat more subsumed under the development of the systems thinking process. Another change made in the more current model is that links are labeled.  This allows you to more precisely define the relationship between the elements. The label ‘adopts' was chosen because the principles defining direct deliberative participatory democracy and the principles defining systems thinking would in turn be used in defining the community, as a system, from that point on. Another change with the links is that some are made bi-directional with the premise being that the influence or affect can go both ways. 

The elements and links of the A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking were maintained, but reformatted so that the participatory democracy elements are gathered in the top right hand corner of the new model and the systems thinking elements are gathered in the bottom left hand corner. Most of the new links for the Participatory Democracy with Systems Thinking model are purple or violet (depending upon how big your crayon box was when you were young). The A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking model links are blue, making it easy to determine where the two models interact. Based on the design decision to keep the original model and work around it, the unfolding of the A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking component of the current model is for the most part in reverse order.  

The new model also introduces two new re-enforcing loops similar to those found in the previous model.  Under the new model, each R loop is provided a title, as proposed in the last blog post, under the ‘i’ icon. R5, Deliberative Democratic Dialogue defines the relationship with the group dynamics of the A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking model. R6, Creating Proto-type ST models, introduces an additional component of systematic intervention with the community group and other staff, based hypothetically on design thinking concepts. (The differences between design thinking and systems thinking and how they can be related needs to be explored more in the future.)

One change made from the A 'Better World' thru Systems Thinking model is that the Discussion Perceived Meaningfulness was renamed Discussion Perceived and Defined Meaningfulness. As is explained in the related ‘i’ icon for the element, “‘Definedmeaningfulness is added as good or bad the decisions will define and provide meaning for the community. BD The element Discussion Perceived and Defined Meaningfulness is in the center of the new model with multiple links connecting to it.

A new element is also included, by repurposing a variable primitive. Under, primitives are the various text boxes, pictures, stocks, links, flows and variables that can be used in making up the models. The variable primitive is usually used to set a value for something defined numerically or mathematically, such as the interest rate on money in a bank. I wanted to convey values in a different manner and differentiate it from the other elements in the model.  In this case the focus is on the possible values created by the system.  This hierarchy is admittedly hypothetical at this point.

“Decisions or outcomes between competing proposals are endeavored to be reached through a collaborative process that may or may not work. This means that such decisions could reach a level of: 1. Synthesis, 2. Collaboration, 3. Compromise, 4. Prioritization, 5. Competitive Selection.”

A third new re-enforcing loop, R7 Enhancement of Systems Thinking, is revealed, delineated by green links.  The model finishes off asserting that, ‘A Better World’ helps to create ‘A Better Community’. 

The Participatory Democracy with Systems Thinking model is a simple, even simplistic model. It only provides positively re-enforcing loops. It could perhaps be demonstrated more openly that a balancing loop is inherent within the system between systems thinking and deliberative democracy, with each one influencing the other to be maintained within certain parameters.  There are no negatively re-enforcing loops. One could imagine an element being included within the deliberative and participatory democracy subsystem being made up of a small group of individuals allowed to dictate the outcomes of the larger group.  Using A Ladder of Citizen Participation by Sherry R. Arnstein as a metric, those factors at the bottom of the ladder of engagement would be apparent if the group excessively limited the engagement of the larger community, and at the top if the group was exceedingly open and transparent or perhaps even not in existence. The same could happen with the systems thinking subsystem with a manager that only selected certain projects that specifically benefited those in the selected group and in turn helped guarantee continued employment. Taken together, these two elements could create an ‘entrenched’ government institution within the community that could continue under a facade of democratic protocols despite not truly adhering to democratic principles. It doesn’t demonstrate how two or more proposed alternative interventions might work through the entire model.

If you wish to learn about systems thinking in more detail, I am again going to recommend the book Beyond Connecting the Dots Modeling for Meaningful Results, Copyright © 2013 Scott Fortmann-Roe and Gene Bellinger featured in the right hand column of this blog.

Beginning using Systems Thinking for New Community Paradigms, not just talking about it

Another area of inquiry this blog has delved into in the past and is still exploring is systems thinking. Systems Thinking as a disciplined process for Community Governance, New Community Paradigms Thinking Requires Systems Thinking, Systems Thinking: Recursion for Reconfiguration and Reconceptualization and the creation of the Systems Thinking Approaches wiki-page explored the inclusion of systems thinking into community development and community-based governance. Further knowledge was acquired from the Model Thinking class through the University of Michigan taught by Professor Scott E. Page featured on Coursea. However, nothing has been done so far directly with systems thinking methodologies, design or implementation.

The use of systems thinking in community-based governance would be a paradigm shift because it would focus on not what we do but on how we do things, even on how we think.  It requires a different perspective from what we have usually employed in the past. It has a different means of expressing ideas, through diagrams or models instead of words. It demonstrates the relationships between elements making up a system examined as a whole instead of separating them through reduction. 

This post considers a particular system model or diagram based on or cloned from a systems model developed by Gene Bellinger, who runs the (STiA) Systems Thinking in Action LinkedIn group, and a host of other systems thinking learning resources on the Internet including STiA Brain and Systems Thinking in Action Wiki.

A system being examined can be revealed through a step by step process called storytelling, unfolding by clicking a [Step Forward] button until the entire system and its inherent relationships are made explicit. One online program for building systems thinking models that does this rather well is  This blog post is a written description of such a system thinking ‘story’ diagram as a narrative translation of the diagram providing both a comparison and more explicit though lengthy explanation. This blog post is seventy-five percent longer than usual to introduce and fully explain the systems thinking model in question.

This particular ‘story’ explains the relationship between the development of a systems thinking based intervention as a product or tool to address a challenge facing a group, and the process that such a group, especially one without expertise in systems thinking, might adopt in the development of that systems thinking based intervention and whether that group would be likely to do so again in the future.  This particular story includes some specific system thinking concepts but the primary focus is on how the elements of two dynamic processes relate (though one is subsumed within the other) to each other creating a whole system and how it unfolds to make itself understandable.  

A systems thinking diagram can be presented on one page and once unfolded can be basically comprehended with a single viewing. Well, at least by most. This may be a matter of becoming familiar with this method or perhaps some will always prefer narrative and the stories we create to explain our world. Competing narratives, however, are difficult to combine into a common platform of concepts whereas a diagram can readily make the relationships more explicit. 

When you open the model, you will see a blank page except for a Better World at the top of the page, a menu bar above that and buttons for [Start Over], [Exit Story] and [Step Forward], as well as the words, "the objective is to create a better world" at the bottom of the screen. 

In the story, a group or organization deciding on adopting a systems thinking approach to developing interventions establishes a goal of making A Better World. This is started by clicking the [Step Forward] at the bottom right corner to take the first step through Successful Interventions based upon systems thinking. The systems thinking (ST) diagram will show the two labels connected with an arrow to convey the idea that Successful Interventions contribute or add to A Better World.

The next [Step Forward] of the ST diagram then reveals more concepts indicating that Successful Interventions contribute or add to the Perceived Utility of Systems Thinking, which in turn adds to the likelihood that Systematic Interventions will be utilized which in turn reinforces the likely reoccurrence of Successful Interventions.  This circular relationship is known as a reinforcing loop. 

Additional information on the particular elements making up the system or in this case concepts can be found by placing the cursor on each of the labels to reveal a small ‘i’ icon in the right top corner which when clicked presents notes for that particular label  All of the notes were written by Gene and are being used so has to provide the most optimal explanation of how a systems thinking approach works. They are quoted in this post as part of the narrative explanation. Each [Step Forward] will also reveal additional information at the bottom of the model’s screen. 

This specific reinforcing loop is concerned with the implementation of system thinking interventions. It does not consider why or how they were created or the consequences if they are unsuccessful in except that it would assumedly decrease their utility. 

Loop R1 {Implementation of Systems Thinking Intervention}
Successful Interventions to
A successful intervention is one that accomplishes what it was intended to do and makes the encompassing whole better. This is based on the Ackoff statement that one should never improve any part of a system that doesn't also improve the whole. 

The perception is that systemic interventions will promote successful interventions and those successful interventions will result in a better world 
as well as promote the perceived utility of Systems Thinking. (More on Russel L. Ackoff and his career)

Perceived Utility of Systems Thinking
Both participants understanding of Systems Thinking and 
the perceived meaningfulness of discussions are considered to 
contribute to the perceived utility of Systems Thinking.

Systemic Interventions
Systemic interventions are those which are developed based on one of the existing models or methods which embrace the Systems Thinking paradigm.

The next [Step Forward] shows a separate reinforcing Loop R2 {Group Development of Systems Thinking}. Starting with Understanding of Systems Thinking, the attached note explains, An understanding of Systems Thinking is considered essential to promote systemic interventions and the perceived utility of Systems Thinking. This refers to the ability and willingness of a group or organization to use systems thinking as a means of developing and applying systems thinking based interventions. This contributes or adds to Employment of ST Models and Methods, which attached note explains, Actually employing a Systems Thinking model or method for the investigation is expected to improve the perceived meaningfulness of the discussion.

This in turns adds to the Discussion Perceived Meaningfulness by the organization or group considering the use of systems thinking based interventions. Well facilitated meaningful discussions are expected to promote both an understanding of Systems Thinking and its perceived utility. Again adding to the starting point Understanding of Systems Thinking making this another reinforcing loop.

The next [Step Forward] reveals three new arrows establishing new relationships between one Understanding of Systems Thinking and Systemic Interventions; two Understanding of Systems Thinking and Perceived Utility of Systems Thinking and three Discussion Perceived Meaningfulness and Perceived Utility of Systems Thinking. The point being conveyed is that the process that an organization or group employs in developing systems thinking strategies and models have influence on the continued implementation of system thinking based interventions. 

The next [Step Forward] reveals Loop R3 {Facilitation of Group Development for Systems Thinking} but this time connected directly to the R2 loop by way of Discussion Perceived Meaningfulness which contributes or adds to Discussion Facilitation. The attached note explains, Facilitation is intended to promote the perceived meaningfulness of the discussion by keeping it on track and ensuring that the interactions are respectful of individuals and their time. So if the discussion is seen as meaningful by the participants because the systems thinking interventions have been successful, it will be easier to keep the discussions on target and to create new successful interventions.  The arrow is again indicating adds to or contributes to, from Discussion Facilitation to Stay on Track, This is considered very closely related to respectful of individuals and their time. Keeping the discussion on track is expected to make it more meaningful. and subsequently back to Discussion Perceived Meaningfulness. Overall, this loop has more to do with the organization or group itself and how it creates and develops system thinking interventions.  There may be potentially successful interventions possible but if a group cannot work to develop them it makes little difference.  

In the next [Step Forward], a fourth reinforcing Loop R4 {Respectful of Individuals and Their Time} basically makes explicit and reinforces one of the ideas already presented in the Loop R3 {Facilitation of Group Development for Systems Thinking}. 

Two new concepts are added in the next [Step Forward] following that directly or indirectly add to both Discussion Facilitation and Discussion Perceived Meaningfulness. The inclusion of a systems thinking STW moderator, Moderator ensures that all approved discussions have and that the initiator agrees to moderate the discussion”, who contributes to Discussion Facilitation as well as contributing to Defined Intent. Having a defined intent for the discussion is expected to increase the likelihood of facilitation as well as perceived meaningfulness. In this case, the focus is on improving the development of the systems thinking intervention model rather than on enhancing the discussion by the group. Developing an intervention which attempts to reach divergent or opposing goals at the same time will not work. The group has to first decide on its goals and ensure that they are all properly related.  If a specific goal or set of goals is established for the systems thinking based intervention, then this, in turn, will allow such Defined Intent to optimally contribute to both Discussion Facilitation and Discussion Perceived Meaningfulness.  

The STW moderator, the next [Step Forward] reveals, also contributes to Facilitated ST Learning.  In other words, the group learns while doing. The attached note explains, It is expected that meaningful discussions alone are not sufficient to promote the ongoing development of Systems Thinking understanding. As such the STW moderator will facilitate learning programs personally or by other members of the group. This naturally contributes to an Understanding of Systems Thinking and all the related and subsequent iteratively reinforcing loops.

This particular systems thinking diagram deals with the utilization of systems thinking interventions by a group in general.  It does not specify a particular systems thinking intervention, the type of group considering the intervention or the process by which the group determines the intervention or how it implements that intervention. The next stage of development will be to create an expanded model that separates the group interaction through direct participatory democracy as a dynamic process and illustrates how it and the process of creating systems thinking interventions could support each other.  

The explanation provided by this post is far longer and would be more difficult for a group working to all comprehend together than would a systems thinking model.  The systems thinking model provides a basis for disciplined collaboration.  Further explorations into incorporating systems thinking into direct deliberative community-based democracy will be made in the future. For anyone wishing to begin their own education into systems thinking modeling, I am going to recommend the book Beyond Connecting the Dots Modeling for Meaningful Results, Copyright © 2013 Scott Fortmann-Roe and Gene Bellinger featured in the right-hand column of this blog. 

Past Posts