New Times May Require Rethinking our Infrastructure

Systemic change is hard work. And, it doesn’t happen without courageous leadership. 

Last week I was in London, Ontario exchanging learnings regarding the how to’s of community building. The two days involved working with a stellar municipal team who’ve done a remarkable job of getting some 125 children, youth and family-serving organizations to commit to applying an integrated service delivery model.

While integrated, system-thinking services would seem like a no-brainer given that people don’t come in segregated departments, too often we’ve built systems to serve them as if they do.  Worse yet, these segregated systems become entrenched, bigger, and extraordinarily difficult to change.

As if segregated departments within a municipality aren’t complicated enough, services could also be delivered by other levels of government, social-profits, or the private sector. As a result, we often seem to have lost sight of being people-centred and holistic- thinking and are instead bogged down by funding silos, mandates, specialization, and turf protection. The average person in need of services related to social services, housing, recreation, health etc.often gets lost in the complexities of the system.

There is a growing movement to suggest that business or privatization could do a better job of managing the system. At the very least, the thinking is that government and social-profits simply need to adopt a business approach to ensure a more integrated and consumer-focused system.

However, the more I work with communities, the more I am of the opinion that no one sector has the answers. While perhaps businesses could help social-profits increase efficiencies and reduce costs, money isn’t the only measuring stick of success. Using business-thinking doesn’t always help with complex social issues and challenges that typically require thinking and measures more aligned with fairness and human rights. If business calls the shots it is quite likely that competition, revenue generation, and returns on investment will trump the compassion, cooperation and collaboration required for social change. On the other hand, business thinking does nurture innovation, reward entrepreneurs, and generally results in improved products and performance as the result of responding to market feedback. They draw on the talents of individual employees and often share their economic rewards.

Government doesn’t have the answers either as most of their responsibility is focused on ensuring basic security and social order. They protect democracy and the public interest while making decisions in the best interest of society and ensuring a level playing field of opportunity and a common framework of laws and their enforcement. As a result, the “p” services dominate - pipes, pavement, police, parks, planning, property assessment, public health etc. 

Social or non-profit organizations celebrate, build and protect the many values that are essential for healthy and vibrant communities. They work to ensure everyone has access to the support and services they need to develop their full physical, mental and spiritual potential. They create spaces to celebrate the joy of culture and artistic expression, help to protect the environment, and contribute to economic development.

So while each of the three sectors have their own respective priorities, focus and modus operandi, all three also have important pieces of what’s needed to build healthy and vibrant communities. It is both a blessing and a curse because although there is a need to work together to ensure active, creative, and engaged communities, we don’t have a neutral infrastructure from which this can take place.
Some have suggested that what is required is a new hybrid of organizations that incorporates the best of the three traditional sectors – private, government, and social profits – and as such falls within a new fourth sector.

What makes this kind of fourth sector or “For-Benefit” organization unique is that they would be grounded by a foundation of core principles that brings into play the best thinking and practices from within each of the sectors. As has been said before, new times require new thinking. However it is just as true that new times just might require new infrastructures.   

Posted on 07-04-10


I agree that we need new infrastructures and maybe a first step is understanding other delivery infrastructures.
Perhaps the next step is to research existing models and then bring together the innovative thinkers with leadership from all three sectors.
If existing methods are not delivering the results we want, it can’t hurt to try something new!

•Posted by Carol Petersen  on  07/26/10  at  11:36 AM

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