When Change Potential is Embedded in Bigger Systems


Yesterday I was part of an examination committee for a student discussing issues of health promotion, policy change and advocacy for a population that has been widely viewed as marginalized. The challenge that this student was wrestling with was balancing issues of collective and individual empowerment and where the appropriate action needs to take place (and then determining how to evaluate the impact of such action). Drawing on the work of Isaac Prilleltensky and his brilliant work on empowerment theory, the student’s project hopes to foster change that fits somewhere between the individual and community. But how to evaluate the impact?

An empowerment approach, as conceived by Prilleltensky, involves both personal and societal shifts simultaneously to be most effective. If individuals are motivated to change, yet the system is not prepared to adapt to these changes, the value of empowerment is diminished and so is the effect on society. The question shifts to looking at a place to start or determining what the is chicken and what is the egg. This question is less useful than one that considers ways to understand the embedded nature of change agents and change itself within systems shaped both by structure and time.

Barack Obama was elected in a manner that greatly changed the way we look at politics. While he made enormous strides in shaping an electorate, his success at governing has been more muted. Obama’s potential to do well in governing is embedded in the policies and practices that came before him, whether he likes it or not. This is illustrated to full comic effect in a recent Ron Howard ‘Presidential Reunion’ short on Funny or Die. George W. Bush built his policy agenda in a manner that was positioned with Bill Clinton’s, which was positioned with George H.B. Bush’s and so on. Yes, there are some clear departures based on incidents of massive, abrupt change such as September 11th attacks which led to major reactive shifts in policy like the creation of the U.S. Patriot Act , creation of new governmental bodies, and the initiation of two wars abroad. But these are the extremes. A closer look at most non-revolutionary government shifts shows that policy evolves and gets tweaked, but rarely exhibits radical change from administration to administration. Even though the rhetoric around health care reform in the U.S. has spoken of ‘radical change’, the bottom line is that no matter what policy emerges, it will bear closer resemblance to what came before than it will differ.

The embedded structure of social systems is akin to Russian Matryoshka dolls. Our ability to change hinges upon where in stack of dolls we lay and how tightly those dolls are stuck together. I would argue that Obama’s electoral success had a lot to do with a system where the fit of the dolls was loose. There was a clear process to getting nominated (e.g., primaries), but the manner by which interest gets generated and people get out to vote was loose at the time of his campaign. Obama succeeded primarily because he got people to vote who had never come out before, the population that most had given up on trying to reach. In government, the fit is much tighter. Everything has a protocol, a history, and receives an intense scrutiny in that even the smallest shift is noticed, dissected and critiqued.

That leads to a lot of information and feedback, much of it contradictory. Hence, the inertia. With more information than ever at our disposal, the risk that this inertia will persist is high. Jaron Lanier, who I wrote about in my last post, migh attribute this to ‘lock in’ : the dominant way of doing things. Obama succeed because he found a new model of campaigning, captured nicely in three recent books (Harfoush / Plouffe / Sabato). We don’t yet have a new way of governing.

From an evaluation perspective it becomes critical that we understand both these structures and the fit between these variables, or the degree to which the dominant design or ‘lock in’ plays in mediating the impact of change if we are to understand the impact that our efforts to create change are having.

The student who just defended her comprehensive exam, her challenge in using health promotion to instill change will depend on how locked in our society is in its attitudes towards vulnerable populations and the fit between the individual and community with regards to empowerment. I hope, like Obama campaigning in 2008, that fit is loose.

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