In Too Deep

Embracing complexity and interconnection in governmental policy development | Episode 2

January 22, 2019 Jolyon Swinburn, Ministry of Environment in New Zealand Season 1 Episode 2
In Too Deep
Embracing complexity and interconnection in governmental policy development | Episode 2
Show Notes Transcript

Jolyon Swinburn is a Policy Analyst at the Ministry of Environment in New Zealand. In this role, he brings a multi-domain approach that recognizes how interconnected our various natural assets are and how we can use that mindset to create more effective policies.

Jolyon:

Once you start scratching the surface of these wicked environmental problems, then you can easily go down a rabbit hole from which there's no return. But at the same time I think if you're able to map out exactly what it is in these domains and you start to make these connections, then actually it can be quite empowering.

Jeff:

Welcome to In Too Deep, the place for meaningful conversations about tackling tough problems. This week we're rejoined by Sam Rye and also Jolyon Swinburn, who is a policy analyst at the Ministry for Environment in New Zealand. He's essentially bringing a systems approach to his work there in really being environmental stewards for the natural resources across New Zealand.

Sam:

Okay. So let's jump straight in. Can you tell me a little bit about the Ministry of Environment's start in New Zealand and what you do there at the moment?

Jolyon:

Yeah, sure. So the ministry for the environment in Aotearoa New Zealand is based in Wellington and we are effectively the environmental stewards of our resource management system and we're a central government agency and we specialize in policy and policy development for our natural resources in New Zealand.

Sam:

I know we talked a little bit beforehand about your background and it was quite an interesting path that you took to getting started in systems practice. Do you want to just share a little bit of that with us?

Jolyon:

Yeah, sure. So I have a legal background and I also did an arts degree in politics, philosophy and economics, which I guess is really a good start if you want to think about multidisciplinary thinking or cross disciplinary thinking and then moving into the environmental space from this perspective, you quickly realize how, how complex environmental systems are and that it's not only are they complex but then very difficult to, to describe exactly what the complexity is, and/or to map it, and/or to think about policies or the best way to approach these systems.

Sam:

Yeah it's certainly difficult when systems are ever changing, let alone when they're somewhat broken away from us as a group of people sometimes and we don't experience them all the time. That sort of brings us into what you're working on at the moment at the ministry. Could you give us a little flavor of that?

Jolyon:

I've moved around the ministry a bit. I've worked in the marine space. I've worked in climate change policy, and now currently in their strategy and evaluation team here at the ministry. And we're actually working on a quite an interesting project at the moment that's taking a natural wealth, natural capital lens on our natural assets here in New Zealand. And we're sort of thinking broadly, how we can look to halt and reverse the decline in our natural assets in New Zealand? And we're partnering up with, other natural resource sector agencies in New Zealand, as well as business leaders around the country and organizations that are also wishing to halt and reverse the decline of our natural assets. So it's a really interesting project.

Sam:

Awesome. And how, within that sort of practice that you've been working on at the moment, how does Kumu fit into that practice and what are you doing with the maps that are coming out of it?

Jolyon:

Yeah, so part of this project or initiative is to think about our natural assets in a way in which we recognize how interconnected they are. So if you split up our natural assets into four different categories like land and soil, marine, fresh water, and biodiversity, and then as well as tack on some crosscutting domains like sustainable finance and climate change, you quickly realize how interconnected they all are. And if you are looking at say for example the marine space and you're trying to think about how you'd approach the decline or reverse the decline of the natural assets and marine you realize quickly how joined up it is to land and soil domain. And how for example, biodiversity concerns, it really all hinges and depends on one another. And I think Kumu is a very good tool to use to explain this multi domain approach. If you look at perhaps drawing a map on each individual domain, that's, that's quite an interesting process in itself. And then to take a step back and see how those domains link up I think Kumu does a very good job in illustrating this. And that's what we're using it for with this project.

Sam:

Awesome. I've heard a lot of people talk about complexity in terms of a spider's web, everything being joined to everything else. And if you pull away one of those strands, you can't just rebuild the web. And I saw a similar pattern with conservation in New Zealand back in the 1960s. There was that drive to save species, um, and save a, you know, a particular animal or a particular species. And then realizing that really you needed to save the whole habitat and to do that you needed to look at landscapes not some particular little area. So I really, really feel that challenge, that interconnectedness. And I think for a lot of people that can be quite, almost quite paralyzing to see the complexity of things and how do you intervene and not, you know, break everything else. I guess that sort of brings me to the question of like, what's, what's your edge of learning at the moment with this practice? What are you wondering about or what are you finding hard?

Jolyon:

Yeah, absolutely. Once you start scratching the surface of this, of these wicked environmental problems, then you can easily go down a rabbit hole of from which there is no return. But at the same time, I think if you're able to map out exactly what it is in these domains and you start to make these connections between the domains and you start to see perhaps the inefficiencies of particular policy interventions that we've done in the past and actually it can be more or less actually can be quite empowering. So if you start to see these connections and you can start to see, well, if you focus on this aspect, then there will be benefits in other domains down the road depending on how you approach the issue. So yeah, on the one hand it's, it's a rabbit hole. On the other hand, you can really see opportunity in looking at it like this. And I think to answer your question, this has been a learning process for me also. It's quite easy to use the buzzword opportunity in the government space at the moment. But, you know, to be honest, if yeah, you start to see these connections, then you do actually start to see opportunities.

Sam:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I have been listening to a lot of Donella Meadows' work on thinking in systems at the moment and it really just kinda, I keep thinking of the difference of the mechanistic version of systems where like, you know, our natural inclination is to try and fix them if something feels broken. Whereas the shift to thinking in sort of living systems is really thinking about how you can improve the health of the system, improve its resilience and adaptability. And I think that that shift from mechanistic to living so, so important, especially in policy circles as to how we approach things. So I was actually wondering, do you find this systems practice quite common in policy circles at the moment? Are you seeing any other people using it?

Jolyon:

It's a tough one. We certainly are talking about it, that's for sure. I think there is a bit of confusion as to what systems thinking actually entails and how you can actually incorporate it into your policy practice. Certainly I see it being used as a way of achieving buy in from stakeholders. That's one way that systems mapping, if you've got various people that have a stake in a particular policy intervention and you get them to help you draw up this systems map, then absolutely at the end of it, it might look like a complete birds nest, but they understand it because they helped you draw it and then they can really achieve buy in for when you actually then go ahead and develop a policy for that project. I think we've got a lot of improvement to go in terms of being able to use systems thinking in a quantitative way about how we can start to think about how targeted interventions will have effects further down the line. I think, well certainly in my use of systems mapping, that's where I would like to improve.

Sam:

Yeah. Awesome. Yeah. So I guess my final question is really, has Kumu helped you in your work? And if so, how? Is there any particular area that it's been useful for you?

Jolyon:

Yeah, so as, as I said, thinking in systems is, has been a new learning curve for me and developing systems maps is also something relatively new to me. But what I, I guess I've found Kumu to be quite intuitive in creating these maps and in doing so it's helped me to explain what I'm trying to achieve with these, with these maps. And I guess Kumu, the fact that it's compatible with Microsoft Excel, what we use here. I've been playing around with putting a whole bunch of different Excel maps we've got and seeing how they project, um, how Kumu can project them. Some of them definitely get put into the too hard basket, but others, you know, you start working on different sizings and colorings and connections and you doctor them a little bit and the end result is something that you can really talk to and, and lead them on their journey perhaps through the presentation function or whatever they have. You can really show your thinking with Kumu.

Sam:

So the, I guess the, I hear a strong thread towards the story that comes out of the mapping being the, almost the way to communicate it versus just giving a map. Is there anything else you'd like to tell us before we sign off?

Jolyon:

Yeah, I'll just say that possibly one more aspect is, is its ability to break down silos and cross coordinate between areas. So easily when we slice off or carve off different focus areas then these silos develop and I don't really think they're particularly helpful. So if you can have tools to help break down these silos then that will really help, especially in the environmental space. In fact, any tools that will help in the environmental space are more than welcome.

Sam:

Cool. Awesome. Okay. Well that's great. If anybody wanted to reach you online to talk a little bit more about the work that you're doing, whether they're from New Zealand or inside, the government want to compare notes. Is there any way to get hold of you online?

Jolyon:

Yeah, sure. Send me an email at [email protected] Yeah, feel free to send an email and we can compare notes.

Sam:

Awesome. And are you in the Kumu slack group? Can people find you in there or not yet?

Jolyon:

No, not yet, but yeah, I'd be keen to join in on that.

Sam:

Awesome. Alright, well we'll make sure you get that invitation and yeah, thank you so much for your time today and uh, yeah, we'll, we'll, I'm sure we'll keep in touch.