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Comprehensive Community Initiatives, Improving the lives of youth and families through systems change, a toolkit for federal managers
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What is systems change
"Systems change" is a shift in the way that a community makes decisions about policies, programs, and the allocation of its resources — and, ultimately, in the way it delivers services to its citizens. To undertake systems change, a community must build collaborative bridges among multiple agencies, community members, and other stakeholders.

Systems change is the centerpiece of a Comprehensive Community Initiative. It's what sets a CCI apart from a conventional service-delivery program. When funds are spent just to deliver services, their impact is limited to the people who receive those services. But when funds are devoted also to systems change, their impact can extend beyond a single program — to multiple programs, agencies, and service recipients, or to the entire community — and far into the future. For this reason, funders are more and more interested in systems-change efforts.

A system is a collection of components that interact with one another to function as a whole.

Systems change may involve…
  • Shifting system components and/or their sequence
  • Shifting interactions between system components
  • Altering the "whole" through shifts in underlying choices, as well as…
  • Shifting the manner in which the system provides feedback to itself.

(Adapted from Foster-Fishman et al, Using a Systems Change Approach to Evaluate Comprehensive Community Change Initiatives)

Systems change takes place in multiple dimensions. These dimensions are inter-connected so that a change in one supports change in all the others. To truly transform a community's systems, you need to work toward shifts in all of the following dimensions.

Joint governance and shared decision-making
Systems change enlarges who participates in decision making to include families, youth, and others affected by decisions. As a result, decisions reflect a larger, better-informed perspective on family and community needs and priorities.

Cultural competence
Cultural competence goes hand-in-hand with shared decision-making. To enlarge the circle of decision-makers and work together effectively, CCI participants need knowledge and skills to help them understand, appreciate, and communicate with people whose culture and life experience differ from their own.

Service coordination and integration
The effectiveness of a CCI ultimately depends on how well it meets the needs of individual community members. When people seeking help have to deal with multiple agencies, each with its own requirements and paperwork, they are likely to become frustrated and discouraged, and eventually may be lost in the system.

To overcome this fragmentation, decision-makers need to look at the total service-delivery system, identifying gaps, duplication, and overlaps in services. Working from this information, they can set up mechanisms to facilitate inter-agency communication and coordination — such as wrap-around services, joint decision making, unified assessment and intake processes, and shared information systems — all to help ensure that a person seeking help encounters a seamless path through the services they need.

"Safe Passages integrates community-based, culturally competent intensive case management with mental health services provided by the same person. Case managers are licensed therapists from Jewish Family and Children's Services who help caregivers understand the effects of trauma on themselves and their children while assisting with stabilizing the family's urgent needs. Case management services include assistance with securing public services (medical, housing, transportation, childcare, emergency funds, legal, and food) and coordinating with other public agency workers."

- Safe Start: Promising Approaches Communities Working Together to Help Children Exposed to Violence, January 2008

A unified fiscal strategy
How money is spent can have an enormous impact on the success of a CCI. Fragmented service delivery is usually accompanied by fragmented funding. To bring about the coordination of services, decision-makers need to shift their focus from individual programs to the larger problem those programs are meant to address. By looking collectively at all the funding streams and other resources already devoted to solving the problem, they may be able to reconfigure these multiple streams to use funds more efficiently. They may also be able to identify new sources of funding to fill gaps and expand services.

Supportive public policy
We usually think of policy as laws, regulations, procedures, and protocols set down in formal written documents. But policy may also be unwritten and informal — embedded in the culture of agencies and organizations as the way people commonly assume things "ought to" be done, or simply the way that people are accustomed to doing things.

To bring about community change, it's essential to conduct a comprehensive analysis to identify all the policies, both formal and informal, that impact how services are provided, and then to revise those that pose barriers to the CCI, or to create new more supportive policies. In some cases, policies may contradict one another, creating "Catch 22s" that make it harder for decision-makers to move forward.

"READY BY 21 calls on states and communities to change the odds for children and youth by changing the way they do business. Working in partnership with national organizations representing the business, government, education and nonprofit sectors, the Forum for Youth Investment provides frameworks, coaching and tools to help leaders think differently, act differently and act together. The READY BY 21 Big Picture Approach helps leaders — from young people to parents, program directors to policy makers — bring precision to their passion, ensuring that all young people are ready by 21 - ready for college, work and life."

- Forum for Youth Investment at http://www.readyby21.org

Systems change is important at the federal level as well as the community level, particularly when federal policies pose barriers to the implementation of a CCI. See Federal Partnerships Guideline #5.

"… the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Justice and Labor have committed to a collaborative approach at the national, state, and local levels to serving our nation's neediest youth in order to develop innovative approaches, enhance the quality of services delivered, improve efficiencies, and improve the outcomes for the youth we serve."

- Shared Youth Vision, http://www.doleta.gov/ryf/whitehousereport/vmo.cfm