What is a systems approach?

Instructional material | 24 May 2022

What is the ‘Systems Change Initiative’?

The Systems Change Initiative (SCI) is one of four cross-cutting pillars in the Sida-ILO Partnership (2022–25). The SCI builds on and applies a market systems development (MSD) approach to promote decent work and productive employment opportunities for the working poor.

What is systems change?

The mandate and vision of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is to promote decent work for all workers, regardless of where they work. For the SCI, this means addressing the underlying reasons why decent work deficits exist and persist - not just treating their symptoms.

Think of workers on a construction site: Handing out protective equipment may help make the construction site safer in the short term, but does not address the reasons why the site was unsafe in the first place. In other words, it does not change the longer-term incentives for businesses to improve workplaces practices, which are often more related to business models (e.g. squeezed margins leading businesses to under-invest in workers) and institutional capacities (e.g. to set and enforce safety inspection standards).

Systems change comes through “shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place” . This involves measurable changes in the structure of systems – resources and relationships; power and policies - that can drive more inclusive labour market outcomes.

What does a systems approach to decent work involve?

A systems approach challenges traditional models of development assistance in order to improve the:
  • Sustainability of outcomes: Improvements in the decency of work can benefit all – especially the most marginalised - beyond the period of intervention.
  • Scale of outcomes: Innovations are replicated, spill over and spread beyond just those partners and areas the intervention is directly working with
It achieves this not by rolling out a prescriptive approach or a fixed methodology, but by applying three key principles:
  • Analysis-focused: Instead of pushing predetermined solutions, a systems approach starts by analysing the local context to identify what really causes decent work deficits, in order to prioritise those which can practically be solved and understand how.
  • Partner-driven: Working to allow local actors with a stake in progress to own and drive forward the change process through a process known as ‘facilitation’.
  • Evidence-based adaptation: Blending design and implementation through rapid cycles of planning, action, measurement, reflection and revision.
The ILO’s systems approach to decent work draws on other global development movements such as Doing Development Differently and Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation. Its tools and implementation guidance is drawn directly from a Market Systems Development (MSD) approach.

How does the approach relate to systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of approaching problems that asks how various elements within a system influence one another. Patterns are often hidden and hard to identify, with solutions to problems not possible to predict in advance. In a systems approach to decent work, this means that sectors must be analysed holistically, and interventions not based on pre-planned blueprints of ‘what works’ based simply on global policy recommendations - but designed, delivered and adapted according to how they can solve problems in a way that is relevant to the local context.