Five insights for innovative systems change

Published: 4 November 2020

Deep rooted problems demand deep rooted solutions. 

This article was originally published on Apolitical.

Covid-19 has exacerbated the challenges we face, but they are not new.

Many have deep and complex roots, and have resisted repeated attempts to address them. Public servants around the world are increasingly interested in systems change — reorienting our whole approach to this kind of intractable problem, across the public and voluntary sectors, in order to tackle it at the roots.

More than 100,000 people in the UK are at high and imminent risk of being murdered or seriously harmed by a current or family partner or another family member. With no change in this number over the last 15 years, it is clear that the existing approach to domestic abuse is not working.

The Drive partnership has helped change the UK’s response to domestic abuse at a local and national level. We’ve developed new ways of working with perpetrators, to change their abusive behaviour, which are now being widely adopted.

We’ve influenced policy and funding streams, and reframed the narrative on domestic abuse — from Why doesn’t she leave?” to Why doesn’t he stop?”. 

We want to share five insights from our recent report on Drive and systems change, for policymakers and practitioners trying to develop new, more effective responses to intractable social problems:

  • Start with a problem, and stay focused on solving it:
  • Show that change is possible
  • Link local and national
  • Get the relationships right
  • Tell as well as show

Start with a problem, and stay focused on solving it

Drive is a partnership between Respect and SafeLives, two specialist domestic abuse charities, Social Finance, and the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales.

What united the four organisations was a common intent to shift attention to the cause of domestic abuse — perpetrators’ behaviour. We often develop programs or partnerships in response to a funding opportunity, or to sustain existing work. Drive began with partners coming together around a problem they had already identified independently, and a shared ambition for system change.

This has allowed us to maintain a consistent focus on our shared end goal, and adapt our activities based on our learning and changes in the external context. For example, when the UK government wanted to discuss Drive, the partners agreed not to request additional funding specifically to roll out Drive. Instead, we took the opportunity to make a bolder call for a comprehensive national response to perpetrators.

Show that change is possible

Rather than starting with advocacy, campaigning, coalition-building or other system change” approaches, Drive started with development and delivery on the ground”. We developed and piloted a service model in 3 pilot sites, and evaluated it rigorously to test whether it worked and to ensure that it was safe.

The independent evaluation found that victims / survivors were nearly 3 times less likely to experience physical violence when the perpetrator had been referred to Drive than people in a control group with no Drive intervention.

Link the local and the national

Our pilots showed that the Drive model reduced the risk of violence, and that it worked in different contexts. But to avoid the fate of so many promising initiatives that never get beyond a few pilot sites, we needed to connect to the wider national system.

Funding was a key link for Drive. We successfully secured funding from the national government. This meant that ministers and policymakers have always had Drive to hand as an example of their work” on perpetrators. As policy interest in this issue grew, this gave us a direct line to policy conversations.

Get the relationships right

Drive has successfully changed the attitudes and practices of a range of agencies through personal and organisational relationships of trust and cooperation.

To achieve lasting change, you need to build relationships with all the organisations you want to take responsibility for the new way of working. For Drive, this included police and criminal justice agencies, social services and child welfare agencies, and a range of other public and voluntary sector organisations working on related issues such as housing, debt and mental health.

We’ve learned that things worked best where these relationships already exist, but even then there’s always a need to keep working on them.

Tell as well as show

Drive launched with a question — Why doesn’t he stop?”. We wanted to shift responsibility from the victim (“Why doesn’t she leave?”) to the perpetrator. This new framing created immediate interest among policymakers, funders and the media, and opened a space for us to engage with the wider system.

A different question also implies different answers. This has given us a powerful lever to change minds and encourage people to think differently, creating lightbulb moments” at every level.

Drive has shown that developing and testing a new solution in practice can change the system at the same time. It hasn’t been easy, and there is still a long way to go, but if you can keep focused on the bigger picture as well as delivery, it’s possible.

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