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Why a systemic approach is required for working on wicked problems


Wicked problems may be better understood using systemic thinking because it takes into account the complexity of interactions, ongoing change and an almost limitless number of variables that create and can contribute to solving these problems (Williams & van 't Hof, 2014). Wicked problems may be viewed as a series of interacting systems, some changing slowly and others moving more dynamically (Grewatsch et al., 2023). While systematic thinking is an objective and results focussed approach orientated to a linear progression of tasks, systemic thinking is different because it regards a complex system as more than the sum of its parts and study’s that system holistically. Practitioners may be systematic at times, but it is systemic practice that is reflexive, responsive to change and emergence, and thereby able to accommodate the diversity of interests and perspectives embedded in the system/s (Ison, 2008; Reynolds et al., 2016).


To think about what should be included in a M&E system for a wicked problem at least three elements need to be considered. They include, the system’s boundaries as these determine what is "in" and what is "out" of a system and provide some comprehension as to the nature of the system (and the problem), an understanding of the inter-relationships, that is the connections between people, systems or ideas, and the actors associated with the issues of interest. The various perspectives of key actors who hold differing viewpoints in relation to their position within the system/s are important to understand (i.e. decision-maker, policy analyst or advisor, practitioner, beneficiaries)(G. Midgley, Pinzon, L. , 2011; Stephens, Lewis, & Reddy, 2018; Williams & Hummelbrunner, 2010; Williams & van 't Hof, 2014). Taken together, and in no intentional order, boundaries, inter-relationships, and perspectives are ‘the essence’ of systemic thinking according to Reynolds et al. (2016) and “distinguish a systems approach from other ways for dealing with complexity” (Reynolds et al., 2016, p. 667).


When we apply systemic thinking to evaluation reflection on the interrelationships, perspectives and boundaries of the evaluand and evaluation helps to manage our approach and execution of an evaluation project. It is important to note that interrelationships, perspectives and boundaries are interlinked. For example, thinking through the range of perspectives that may be relevant to the wicked problem in focus, may inform a stakeholder analysis, how the evaluation is conducted, and the validation of an evaluation’s findings. Reflection upon these may then lead to a widening of the boundary of the evaluation to consider and include new actors. Reflecting on the actors’ perspectives and the interrelationships between people, systems and ideas, evaluators are challenged to think beyond the funder or donor’s view of a program, policy or project, or that of the project and program staff, to consider the power dynamics at play and be inclusive of marginalised voices(Stephens et al., 2018). Systems tools, such as system perspectives mapping, may assist to build a common understanding of the problem, the interrelationships among multiple actors and the systems and sub-systems at play (Sydelko, Midgley, & Espinosa, 2021).

Consideration of implementation and change management is a part of the design process for an M&E system and the application of a systemic approach. Effective implementation and change management approaches for wicked problems need to be systemic and designed for systems that are living and evolving rather than as static mechanisms. A systemic approach to change management promotes adoption and evolution through the interconnections between the diverse actors, ideas, systems and sub-systems(Cao & McHugh, 2005; Vlados, Deniozos, & Chatzinikolaou, 2018).


Case Study: Counter Trafficking in Persons 

Trafficking in persons (TIP), also known as human trafficking or modern slavery, involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of individuals through force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, or abuse of power (ASEAN, 2015). It encompasses various forms of exploitation, such as prostitution, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery, servitude, and organ removal. Child exploitation includes practices like the sale of children, forced labour, debt bondage, and serfdom (US TIP Report). TIP can occur legally or illegally in industries like agriculture, manufacturing, hospitality, and private homes. It is a severe human rights violation affecting an estimated 50 million individuals worldwide (ILO, 2022).

In Southeast Asia, significant efforts are being made to combat TIP. The A-ACT (ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking) partnership has strengthened prevention, response, and justice sector actions against human trafficking within ASEAN member states. Over the last decade, A-ACT has supported ASEAN members to implement the 2015 counter trafficking convention and collaborated on capacity-building activities for frontline responders, ASEAN bodies, and key stakeholders.
The ACWC has developed guidelines to help ASEAN members. These guidelines represent substantial improvements in policymaker and frontline practices over the last 20 years, promoting victim-centered approaches informed by survivors' expertise. However, challenges remain, such as data scarcity and inconsistent data collection against TIP indicators (Sumner, 2020). Sumner recommends that A-ACT work with member states and parties to improve data collection and analysis. A-ACT recognize that establishing a unified approach to data collection, analysis, and reporting would support ASEAN member states counter TIP approaches and promote continuous improvement. One method to achieve this is developing an M&E system to monitor the adoption and implementation of counter TIP guidelines.


In late 2022, consultants were engaged to develop an M&E system for monitoring gender-sensitive and victim-centered counter TIP approaches and mainstream gender-sensitive, child-friendly, and victim-centered approaches across ASEAN member states. The consultants aimed to ensure practitioners have a common understanding and consistent approach to monitoring and reporting. The project considered the wide range of stakeholders, the complexity and sensitivity of the subject matter, and the need for extensive consultation.

The M&E system integrates several knowledge systems, each presented in M&E format and language (e.g., M&E Framework, M&E Logic Model). Designed for simplicity and accessibility, the system is interfaced by a Guidebook document, available as an online interactive PDF. This structure aims to facilitate reflective practice, learning, dialogue, and the use of systematic tools for systemic thinking and application.

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