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Adaptive Systems Pulse Meeting

At our Pulse Meeting on 5 June, participants learned about the complex adaptive system(s) surrounding homelessness and how that impacts on the way we go about doing an outcomes framework.

One of the problems with traditional governance and strategy methods is that they do not work well in the unpredictability of the homelessness space. It’s an experience Ali Mollinger-Sahba, a Research Officer at the Centre for Social Impact and a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia Business School, had while working at St Bartholomew's House.

With a background in compliance, risk and policy, Ali realised that compliance programs based on standards of best practice make large assumptions about what works, but allow little room for learning and change. Yet with complex social problems like homelessness, you can never truly know what will work in the end.

“Best practice is a bit of a mirage to be honest in this space,” she explains. “What we have decided to do is something a bit different.”

[L-R] Professor Paul Flatau; Chair in Social Investment and Impact and Director of the Centre for Social Impact UWA, Ali Mollinger-Sahba; Research Officer Centre for Social Impact UWA, and Claire Dodd; Project Facilitator Western Australian Alliance to End Homelessness

We want to move away from focusing purely on health and economic research, which uses a linear theory of change for explaining how actions and outputs lead to outcomes. While this research has given us invaluable insights into homelessness, including the knowledge that if someone is rapidly rehoused and provided with long term, integrated support services then they have a brilliant chance of ending their homelessness, what we don’t know is how that interacts with the geographical, political, economic, historical, social and other contexts in which such programs are delivered.

“There just seems to be a black hole in our knowledge of homelessness as a system,” said Ali. “So, we started by searching the literature which looks at homelessness as occurring within a system.”

The increasingly popular ‘complex adaptive systems’ approach offers ways of thinking, tools and techniques which help organisations cope with the nonlinearity and the unpredictability of human systems. We can use these to stop thinking of homelessness as a simple, linear process, and start thinking about it occurring within a complex system of interactions. This way, we can learn our way toward changing the system.

Prof Paul Flatau, Director at the UWA Centre for Social Impact, explained that they have taken a complex adaptive systems approach in developing a model for an outcomes framework to measure and evaluate the Alliance’s 10-year goal of ending homelessness.

The model looks at five different domains, and aims to explain how they interact.

• Representation.

Representation is increased power and legitimacy for the network of organisations seeking to end homelessness. It involves obtaining institutional voice for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, as well as for the organisations that serve them.

• Resources.

Resources are the material concessions offered to the network in service of the network’s goal to end homelessness. Resources can take the form of increased monetary funding, as well as increased supply of social and affordable housing. Effective resourcing requires an increased diversity of funding mechanisms which support both innovative and best practice services.

• Collaborative Efficacy.

Collaborative efficacy is the extent to which actors within the network of organisations aiming to end homelessness are able to coordinate their actions, including the services they offer, to provide an effective effort toward addressing factors within the system of homelessness.

• Structural Determinants.

Structural determinants of homelessness refer to those factors which operate at the macro level to place individuals or populations at risk of homelessness, to sustain homelessness, or enable exit from homelessness. They are socially constructed phenomena, and generally considered beyond the control of any individual experiencing homelessness.

• Individual Determinants.

Individual determinants of homelessness are life experiences which, statistically speaking, place the individuals with those experiences at greater risk of homelessness, or give them a greater chance of exiting or avoiding homelessness. It can be difficult to conceptually separate individual from structural determinants, a challenge which belies a view of individual determinants as something over which individuals have more control or agency as compared to structural determinants. For example, lack of access to housing and resources (structural determinants) can put individuals at risk of experiencing mental health issues and substance abuse problems (individual determinants).

So, what do we do with this outcomes framework?

The Centre for Social Impact will take a ‘developmental evaluation’ approach, in which evaluators partner with social innovators (the Alliance and its affiliates) and use the framework to learn and change together toward the ultimate outcome of ending homelessness.

Participants at the meeting were able to provide feedback on the model of the system of homelessness.

“This model is just a starting point, and we need to integrate the lived experience into the domains, outcomes and indicators we have here. Today was a fabulous opportunity to do that, and everyone was really generous in sharing their experiences and ideas to help shape the framework into something that captures our local contexts here in WA.”


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