Addressing Major Systems Change

Published oct. 16, 2015

At Jobs for the Future, we work to drive innovation in education and workforce development at the federal, state, and local level with the ultimate goal of fundamental systems change that will result in economic opportunity for all. The systems involved are some of the most calcified in the nation—K-12 education, higher education, the public workforce system, corrections, public assistance, and more. 

My experience of the past 20+ years shows me that getting just two of these systems to work more effectively together (e.g., adult education and higher education) is challenging—let alone trying to get all of the pieces of the puzzle working in harmony. It is this issue of system alignment that inspired and challenged me over the years through my work in the government and nonprofit sectors. As much sense as alignment makes from a strategic perspective, the all too real challenges of funding streams, performance metrics, governance structures—along with good old-fashioned politics and turf issues—make real change much easier said than done.

The opening plenary of last week’s SOCAP15, an international event that drew over 2,500 social impact investors, entrepreneurs, and change makers, focused on strategies for bringing about the change needed to address major systems problems. I was inspired by Gar Alperovitz’s discussion of The Next System Project, an “ambitious multi-year initiative aimed at thinking boldly about what is required to deal with the systemic challenges the United States faces now and in coming decades.” The speakers discussed the need to move beyond “projects” to scale, and quoted Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” when calling for bold new thinking. 

Tinkering around the edges and continuing to work in our traditional silos will not bring about the magnitude of change that is needed. The new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act took a number of important steps forward. Upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Perkins Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and TANF will offer new opportunities for reform and innovation. Some new efforts hold promise—the Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth (P3), Pay for Success pilots, and the Social Innovation Fund. 

What will it take to truly get us to where we need to go? What needs to be in place to facilitate scale? Are we building enough evidence on what works? Are we investing in proven models? Are we leveraging prior investments as much as possible? Or, in the words of the recently departed Yogi Berra, will it continue to be “déjà vu all over again”?