Four territories, Loos-en-Gohelle, Le Mené , Malaunay and Grande Synthe, have long been committed to a strategy of ecological and social transition

From the sector-wide approach to the systemic approach : a major condition for conducting the transition

Pierre Calame, Collective, December 2019

The organization of our societies remains deeply «  taylorian ": overall efficiency has been sought through a specialization of roles and skills. Organizational charts, in large companies as well as in local public services, have been stretched, sometimes excessively so, by multiplying the hierarchical levels. Each problem has tended to be associated with a particular arrangement to be solved, hoping to achieve overall efficiency through the arrangement of a myriad of specialized activities and through careful planning and extensive codification of the relationships between the multiple gears.

In large companies, a reaction has emerged over the last two decades, moving towards organization charts with fewer hierarchical levels, giving priority to strategy over planning, developing « project-based » operations, leading different skills and departments to collaborate more informally around common objectives.

Until recently, public organizations, especially local authorities, and a fortiori territories, made up of a multitude of actors largely independent of each other, had not undergone the same evolution. One of the interests of the joint reflection of the four pilot experiences is to shed light on what the transition from sectoral approaches to a comprehensive approach, from planning to strategy, can mean in concrete terms for a territory.

These four relatively small territories, Loos-en-Gohelle, Le Mené, Malaunay and Grande Synthe, which have long been committed to a strategy of ecological and social transition, have led them to move from sector-wide approaches, which so often characterise public policies, to an overall approach. They analyse here how this transition from sectoral to systemic approaches was made possible and how the approach of the various actors was transformed.

The four pilot experiments that have together drawn lessons from their experience, Loos-en-Gohelle, Le Mené, Maulaunay and Grande Synthe, will attract the interest and attention of the media and many local elected officials in 2019 because they seem to have overcome an obstacle encountered everywhere, that of fragmentation, the sectorisation of actors, services and public policies. It is therefore particularly interesting to see how they themselves tell the story of how actors have gradually been able to adopt a more systemic approach in their daily lives.

1. First of all, a change of perspective

In order for a territory to become a collective actor, capable of situating itself in the world and influencing its own destiny, three stages must be completed : an entry into intelligibility, moving from a sum of partial understandings of the same reality to a more global understanding ; an entry into dialogue, enabling the legitimacy of the objectives and constraints of others to be recognised and integrated ; an entry into a project.

The idea of changing one’s viewpoint corresponds to the stage of entry into intelligibility. According to the adage « every man sees noon at his door »: the information he has about the world and the representation he makes of it derive directly from his position in the system as a whole. In the manner of the blind who feel the elephant’s body and then try to share a definition: one who has touched the trunk of the elephant likens it to a liana, another who has touched the foot of a trunk, etc…

The systems approach requires a new way of looking at things. Sustainable development creates an awareness of the relationships between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the transformations to be carried out. In everyday life, the actors involved in action develop a broader view of each subject, which makes it possible to act by making links between previously unconnected dimensions.

2. A learning by doing effect

The change of perspective is not only, and above all, not the result of an intellectual process. It comes from learning born of action itself. It often involves initial actions so that, little by little, a capacity to link public policy issues together, to act in a more integrated way, develops. For local public services, this broadening of the horizon comes from the involvement of residents or businesses that bring a different view of reality. Explicit arbitration mechanisms must therefore be put in place, as not all the issues are necessarily aligned. Learning about the systemic is also learning about these tensions. It implies taking into consideration the stakes of others and their own legitimacy.

3. The progressive broadening of the vision starting from very concrete issues, through a progressive broadening approach

Thus, there is a shift from organic food in canteens to the broader issue of food well-being or biodiversity. In Loos-en-Gohelle, «  the nourishing archipelago  » replaces biodiversity in spatial management with green frames or in the participatory preservation of domestic species.

Each time the question is broadened, the system of actors to be associated and integrated into the approach is also broadened. Thus « territorialized cooperative ecosystems » emerge, organized around common issues or concrete projects, leading each one to broaden his or her own vision.

4. A systemic approach makes strategy preferable to planning

The systemic approach assumes that each actor takes ownership of broader issues than those that guide his or her traditional action. It is not possible, it seems, to achieve this through a « top-down » approach, which would assign each actor a role within a collective approach defined from above. In accordance with the importance given to the commitment of all and to learning, the four pilot territories have favoured a « bottom-up » approach in which the various public and private actors advance in their ability to make links between issues that were previously disjointed and their ability to seize opportunities.

The setting in motion itself creates opportunities that lead other actors to make links between the approach and their own issues or actions.

5. Don’t lose anyone along the way ; pull the string without breaking it.

For these pilot territories, the challenge was not to create a small elite within the services sector or among the players in society and the economy, who alone would be able to understand and lead change. The promoters of the approach were careful to ensure that the players themselves gradually broadened their vision according to the information, meetings, opportunities and the conduct of the action itself. The whole thing was to ensure that this snowball effect was constantly snowballing, that actors who were concerned but who were not yet involved or actors who did not feel immediately concerned were gradually involved, making sure that the « systemic leap » to which they were invited appeared at every reasonable moment. This meant for the initiators to manage the tension between ambition and the real state of understanding and receptivity of the actors, paying attention to weak signals.

6. Relying on a few pilot approaches and counting on their ripple effect

Within local public services, a small group close to General Management has initiated new forms of action. The initial results interested other agents who in turn began to take action in other areas. Little by little, the initiatives are crossing and complementing each other, as internal management encourages cross-functionality. Without the capacity of the community to make this change in stance and outlook itself, allowing for greater cross-cutting nature of public action, it would be difficult to invite other players to carry out this broadening on their side.

7. Make visible to all stakeholders the convergences, evolutions, etc. that are at stake.

Each project offers the opportunity to bring together actors (city and intermunicipal services, private actors, associations) who until now have been working separately, which forces them to arbitrate between the divergent interests of the actors. It is an opportunity to draw up a map of the actors involved or concerned and their respective objectives, to identify possible convergences, areas of cooperation or conflict. This visualisation exercise also makes it possible to measure changes, the path taken, to integrate new issues, to identify the contradictions that emerge and that must be overcome.

The common objective remains sustainable development, but each project, depending on the actors involved, offers a particular declination of it  with an arrangement of the actors, each with their own objectives, constraints and skills.

This learning process involves a back and forth between reflection and action, with regular breaks to assess the relevance of the action, analyse the progress and difficulties of cooperation, determine together the mode of animation, and ensure that different dimensions are linked together. This taking of distance requires recourse to third parties if necessary.

8. Using the narrative of joint projects to reveal the obstacles encountered by systemic approaches

For example, in Loos-en-Gohelle, project leaders speak before a public composed of elected officials, services and citizens and thus highlight the administrative obstacles they encounter.