Designing for system and social/political viability in nation-scale systemic interventions

a New Zealand example to address family violence



Viability, Family Violence, Stakeholder Engagement, Critical Systems Thinking


This paper reports on a systemic intervention to develop a national response to family violence prevention involving a diverse set of stakeholders who held differing views on what was required to transform New Zealand’s piecemeal approach to family violence prevention. System redesign in contexts such as these requires attention to not only structural sources of viability but also social and political dimensions of viability. 

In adopting an expanded understanding of viability, our system redesign took the problem of selectivity seriously by creating a safe space where stakeholders could understand how their viewpoints were partial. Methodologically we drew on Ackoff’s Interative Planning (IP), Ulrich’s Critical Systems Heuristics and Beer’s Viable System Model (VSM). IP provides a rationale for a stakeholder-informed, idealised system to focus engagement and strategising about system change; CSH was used to surface and develop a shared understanding of the desirable qualities of a transformed system; and the VSM highlighted the link between activities, resourcing and purpose.

We reflect on the extent to which our systemic intervention articulated a systemically, socially and politically robust vision and approach for a coherent and impactful approach to family violence prevention. We recommend that future work to design national level service systems focus more on political viability and encourage dialogue between the systems and public policy communities about how systemic interventions can be more sensitive to the machinery of government.

Author Biographies

Dr, Department of Management, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

Jeff is a Senior Lecturer in Operations Management, Department of Management, University of Otago, New Zealand. His current research interests include systems methodology, complexity-friendly evaluation approaches, healthcare quality improvement, and sexual violence prevention. Jeff is an experienced applied researcher and has worked on a variety of complex public policy issues, including the reorientation of health services, freshwater management and governance, social service engagement with ‘hard to reach’ populations, and Māori community development.

Graeme Nicholas, Principal Consultant, Ti Kouka Consulting, Tasman, New Zealand and Adjunct Lecturer, Lincoln University, Lincoln, New Zealand

Graeme Nicholas is an independent researcher and consultant researching social practice in order to inform policy and support decision-makers. His research interests include sense-making in situations of social complexity, and applying hermeneutical thinking to social research. His expertise includes systems methodologies, participative social research, theology and psychotherapeutic theory. Until recently, Graeme was a Senior Scientist at a New Zealand government research institute, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research. Graeme is an adjunct lecturer at Lincoln University in New Zealand.