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Untangling the spider’s web of poverty: why we need a bold new approach in policy

Consider a spider’s web. It is a delicate and intricate miracle of nature. When one strand in that web breaks, other strands compensate for the loss of tension and structure. When the spider repairs her web, she must fix the broken strand and adjust all the other strands in the web. The fix changes her web forever. It is dynamic. It is a complex system.

In a complex system dynamic complexity occurs – the often counterintuitive and unpredictable behaviour that arises from the interactions between agents over time.

Child and family wellbeing (and poverty) has all the hallmarks of complexity. How do we respond to dynamic complexity in policy when there are unpredictable behavioural, epigenetic, environmental interactions, and gaps in our understanding?

Traditionally, we have tended to see the simple fixes. Targeting of the families who are doing badly in this complex system, for instance. With targeting we define, locate, deliver, fix. We tighten.

In a complex system, however, the tighter we squeeze, the less we can control. Like herding cats.

What about universalism, then? Actions that work to create optimal living conditions across society are based on very powerful evidence – superannuation, anyone?

Precarious low paid jobs, rising house prices, punitive and difficult to access support systems all squeeze people. Our cognitive bandwidth narrows, our capacity diminishes and choices are constrained. We’ve all experienced wanting to do our best only to find ourselves constrained in different ways by economic circumstance, ill-health, work, stress, prior poor decisions.

People’s physical, psychological and behavioural response in such a system can look very much like the results of a free choice if the complexity of the web is invisible. The invisibility effect is especially powerful when we have a strong individual choice narrative.

Actions to improve wider conditions and provide more choice are powerful. But they’re not sufficient. And that is because of complexity.

As John Sterman says, “Where the world is dynamic, evolving, and interconnected, we tend to make decisions using mental models that are static, narrow, and reductionist.”

We need to lean into the complexity. But how?

Tight, tight, loose.

Complex issues need a tight and dynamic understanding of the lives of people most affected by the issue. This means deep listening to the lived experience and needs of people who you intend to help. In the case of child poverty, it is families, parents and children. We also need a tight grip on the best evidence. In the case of poverty, understanding the role of stress has in limiting people’s cognitive and physical bandwidth is critical. As is understanding the role of the parent and child connection in helping build strong brains in the first few years of life. In New Zealand, understanding different cultural needs is a non-negotiable. A tight grip on evidence means also that government is very disciplined in using quality research methods for their own programmes (including adhering to strong ethical standards in their own experimentation and data collection).

And then what we need a loose approach to solutions.

We don’t define the best solution for families. What we do is seek to enable optimal conditions for them to flourish within that system. We do it based on the needs people tell us they have and the evidence of where the barriers and enablers sit. We consider how they influence each other. There are new tools we can use to do that in complex systems. One small example of considering dynamism in child poverty would be to take the evidence on stress and then consider how all existing interactions with government serve to increase or decrease stress for all members of a whanau.

It is a massive shift in thinking. Our own bias about how evidence and policy and governments should work are no small impediment to that. Top down, target for best return, cost effectiveness, are all value sets that can make it difficult to change the way we do things.

There are other values that need to be engaged for this approach. Trust in people is key. So is power sharing. Valuing self-determination and the inherent worth of all people.  Where there is complexity you do not just ask people to your table, you sit down at theirs and then provide for them in ways that they tell you will enable and empower.

There are some fantastic examples of where it is happening already. The Southern Initiatives co-design works. The work at Wesley Community Action in food security works. Inspiring Communities. Whanau Ora. These are just some of organisations and approaches embracing complexity, centring the lives of people most affected. They trust and power share in the design of solutions. These organisations still have tight aspects to them, but recognise that in managing complexity, you cannot put a strangle hold on the outcomes. In a complex system, outcomes have a habit of changing on you.

It does not mean it is easy. Scale and replicability can be hard, outcome measurements in co-design is difficult. Self-reported measures of wellbeing are not something that mainstream policy has embraced, though internationally they are used as pretty standard indicators.

Government still does the core work to ensure there optimal social, economic, environmental conditions for families. As a treaty partner, there is an obligation to M?ori to be honoured.

However, people in government also look to redirect even increase investment into building the capabilities and capacities of communities to lead their own solutions. Maybe that looks like more investment in local government? Iwi, hapu? Churches in Pacific communities? Effective non-governmental organisations? There must of course be structure around that process, but again, not a strangle hold on how. There must also be an acceptance of the time it can take and the risk that it inevitably comes with experimentation. Failure we keep saying is key to innovation.

People in government are currently working on their strategy for child wellbeing and poverty reduction. The sorts of things that might be seen in their work if complexity is embraced include a focus on equity, a move to reset government support so policies don’t tightly define how people should live. Building government muscle in understanding quality research and data processes. A focus on collaboration in defining wellbeing (quite different from consultation), and investment in building capacity for local systems of collaboration and co-design.

Those working in the sector would be excited to see these elements. Complexity is the story we are telling.

My thanks to Sam Rye for the spider’s web analogy.

  • Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is co-director of The Workshop, a think and do tank that uses values, research, and story to build a more inclusive New Zealand.
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