An Evaluation of How Systems Thinking Can Improve Regulation
Modern regulators are expected to manage an increasing range of risks, respond to complex factors, and contribute to the management of their regulatory systems. Systems thinking can help understand and manage complexity. While there are examples of systems thinking being applied to regulation and regulatory strategies, there is little empirical evidence as to whether and how it can be applied to improve regulation.
I identify 17 common types of systems thinking, of which I select five (rich pictures, causal loop diagrams, stock and flow diagrams, system archetypes and social systems theory) to apply to the case study of drinking water regulation in New Zealand. Based on a desktop exercise, I then evaluate rich pictures, causal loop diagrams and system archetypes in interactive workshops with 21 regulatory practitioners. The regulatory practitioners enjoyed, valued and were able to apply rich pictures, causal loop diagrams and, to a lesser extent, system archetypes in the interactive workshop and intended to apply them in their work. However, interviews after a month revealed that they had not applied these types of systems thinking in their day-to-day work.
The regulatory practitioners did report using systems thinking concepts to be more systemic when they thought and asked questions about their regulatory system. However, they did not apply systems thinking concepts through any structured process, nor did they construct systems models which could be seen and shared.
My research highlights that increasing levels of individual capability, structural support and effort are required as system thinking progresses from understanding, to communicating, to analysing and finally to acting in real-world situations. Further application of systems thinking in regulation could be supported through further training, more detailed guidelines, organisational support or a more specific government mandate on how regulatory agencies take a “whole-of-system view” of their regulatory system.