08 Dec 2023
by Esther O’Sullivan

How systems thinking can drive innovation in Digital Justice

It's easy to think that 'innovation' automatically means a new product when it comes to digital change. But the most important aspect of innovation is to think differently. New (and shifting) mindsets facilitate changes in how to approach challenges, which is crucial for leveraging digital opportunities.

It's easy to think that 'innovation' automatically means a new product when it comes to digital change. But the most important aspect of innovation is to think differently.  

New (and shifting) mindsets facilitate changes in how to approach challenges, which is crucial for leveraging digital opportunities. This different thinking and ways of working creates efficiencies and enables the innovation required to digitally transform entrenched systems, like the justice system. 

The justice system, especially the legal aid agency (which I'm most familiar with), relies heavily on legacy systems. These systems constrain operations, workflow and ways of thinking.  

The day-to-day running of those systems also stifles the ability of those running the systems to have the headspace to consider innovation and transformation.  

Making changes is challenging, partly due to substantial accumulated technical debt in the systems, but viewing it through the lens of technical debt means we miss out on a huge amount of the information and context. 

A more innovative way to view this is to use "systems thinking" to consider all related challenges holistically.  

Systems thinking helps identify unnecessary complexity accumulated over time, allowing us to replace convoluted workflows with efficiency, simplicity and user-centric designs. Rather than just bolting on new solutions, we can holistically reinvent systems around digital possibilities.  

This allows us to identify all the different "debts" that hinder meaningful innovation. What do I mean by other debts? 

  • process debt: services built around inefficient workflows 

  • cultural debt: resistance to change 

  • solution debt: pursuit of minimum viable products over optimal solutions 

  • policy debt: codifying overtly complex policy onto already complex policies 

  • knowledge debt: data trapped in silos, unable to inform decisions 


All these interrelated debts must be considered if we want true change and drive the outcomes required to transform the justice system. 

Collaboration - key to systems thinking

Systems thinking helps fundamentally rethink the entire process - from initial policy changes to implementation and beyond. This demands collaboration across all areas.

It means multi-disciplinary teams working together at the same time. Policy, design, product, technology, and operations start at the beginning and ask: What are they trying to achieve? What capabilities exist now? And how do we optimally build the future system?

In parallel, teams of the same skill sets need to ask themselves what this system currently does and how we can make it more efficient and integrate it with the new initiatives.

Rather than separating efforts by long standing departments, we must ask what skills a modern, fit-for-purpose civil service needs and organise accordingly.

Unless this changes, the multiple debts will remain, preventing the civil service from making the leap required for a modern, agile, flexible service that both citizens and governments need.

I believe the solution is simple — use a system thinking framework for all delivery to enable that holistic approach, as change driven by innovation will always involve many people and organisations with competing priorities and have a bearing on many adjacent policy areas.

As the Civil Service itself saysThe success of an intervention often relies on collective action taken across boundaries. No single individual, agency or department can tackle a complex problem alone. Nor should they” 

Why system thinking is important for the Justice system

Systems thinking is a different way for Justice, or any large complex public body, to approach complex pan-organisational challenges and create opportunities.

Here's how it is vital for enabling meaningful innovation and change:

Supports the holistic perspective: Encouraging all involved to view their operations as interconnected parts of a larger ecosystem, they can identify potential ripple effects and unintended consequences across the operational workflows. By considering the whole system, not just the part being transformed, Justice can better anticipate and therefore reduce the risk of unforeseen issues.

Enables complexity management: Digital initiatives are inherently complex, involving many technologies, processes, and stakeholders. Systems thinking deals with complexity by breaking down systems into manageable chunks and understanding their relationships. This clarity provides the scope for innovation, seeing where tweaks can unlock benefits across the broader system.

Supports feedback loops and iterative approach: It emphasises the importance of feedback loops to continually gauge impact over time. Driving innovation isn't just about launching something to fanfare; it's about constantly monitoring and adapting to achieve the desired outcomes. It also allows organisations to adjust and iterate their strategies based on their evolving needs.

Creates the imperative for collaboration: Any change transformation will require collaboration across different departments and teams within any Justice system. As mentioned earlier, collaboration is essential for successful digital transformation because different areas need to work together to implement and optimise new technologies and processes. Internal political barriers may need to be broken down, requiring senior active support.

To conclude, digital change is a continuous process, not a one-time event. The holistic and adaptable approach that systems thinking encourages is essential in today's rapidly changing digital world.

By understanding how any change fits into the larger system, organisations can tackle complexity, better plan for future developments and ensure their efforts continue to provide value over time. In Zaizi we enable this by offering Transformation Days to our clients and map the larger system.

I believe systems thinking is vital to enabling transformation. It offers a holistic understanding of interconnected elements, manages complexity, avoids unintended consequences by considering the dynamic nature and feedback loops within a system, and drives genuine collaboration, creating the right conditions for success.




Esther O’Sullivan

Esther O’Sullivan

Managing Director, Zaizi