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Training to Create Systems Change: Removing Silos, Mission Focus and Data Accountability

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Larisa Owen
August 17, 2020

To effectuate systems change, full accountability is key to see where practices and policy can and must be changed across multiple systems—not just one. Systems and projects do not need an admission of failure, but they must share an admission of interdependence. The message in training and practice must be that we need help in gaining knowledge. Of equal importance, the training, if narrowly categorical, will only work if clients and families always stay within one system—which we know they don’t. 

In working with projects and systems, it has been said that although training is a vital component in system innovations, “Training alone cannot achieve system reform,” especially when the training is focused within a single system. 

Training sometimes has specific goals of being only client-focused or agency-focused. Training needs to equip frontline staff and their supervisors to understand where clients come from, what needs they have—both apparent and underlying—and how they can move through the systems without screening out the harder-to-serve clients.

Agencies that make referrals to and receive referrals from other health and human services agencies are rarely self-sufficient, and training must recognize that reality. An example close at hand in human services is to refer to a “system of care” or “systems change” when the word system is undeserved. Whatever a system is, it is not a loose network of agencies that simply make referrals to each other without any shared overall accountability for results. A label of “wraparound services” is sometimes used to claim that services are comprehensive when they are really only repackaged in better-concealed silos.

Resistance to this kind of systems change demands knowing the barriers to building bridges among agencies. Since talking about barriers may seem negative, training must move away from the tendency to ignore the obstacles to moving toward a shared mission and instead generate partnerships to understand the why from all system perspectives. 

System change takes partners willing to understand other systems, different population needs and other systems’ processes and mandates. This is more difficult, but it ensures that collaborative efforts constantly remain accountable to their mission. Such a collaborative keeps the focus on adapting training that encompasses other systems and their data.

Data about the outcomes of training is not just a survey, but should also include how that training affected the population that is to benefit from the training. Those results must be measured against what occurred to those clients before the training to help determine whether results are good enough to justify new resources, deeper training and whether an innovation should move toward scale.

What is the harm in holding out a vision of comprehensiveness? The harm is that the claim substitutes for the change. Achieving a training vision demands naming and removing the barriers to the change needed to make the vision real. That is the hard, gritty work of reform, and that is what is often left out of these rhetorical flourishes and single-agency trainings. System change takes partners willing to understand other systems, different population needs and other systems’ processes and mandates. 

Author: Larisa Owen, Ph.D., M.B.A. [email protected]Dr. Owen is a Program Director with Children and Family Futures.  Dr. Owen works on several project including leading the Veterans and Military Families (VMF) projects within the organization, including planning and implementation of veterans treatment courts (VTC) evaluation and technical assistance involving families in the VTC.  Dr. Owen has extensive experience evaluating the effectiveness of program implementation, program enhancement, and evaluation methods for state and national programs including training and evaluation of collaborative programs. Dr. Owen received her Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Legal Studies, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Law

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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