Beginning with System Transformation in Mind

Investigates the leadership required for redesigning important social systems, including identifying when redesign and transformation are necessary.Many of the most pressing challenges and opportunities public leaders face in the 21st century are systemic. Issues of justice, health, education, international security and prosperity, and the design of economies emerge from complex systems and defy simple or single factor interventions for problem solving or major improvement. The challenge for leaders in democratic societies is to be responsive to near-term needs and expectations of stakeholders while also addressing longer-term problems and, when appropriate, redesigning systems to better address them. They must do so in social and political contexts with diffuse responsibility and decision-making, and conflicting interests and motivations among stakeholders.

When addressing such challenges, sometimes marginal changes are not enough, and system redesign is necessary to bring about transformation by changing a system’s elements, structure, rules, or broader context. This dissertation investigates the leadership required for redesigning important social systems, including identifying when redesign and transformation are necessary, key factors to enable it, and processes and principles leaders can follow to help bring it about.

The dissertation begins with a diagnosis of the forces inhibiting systems approaches to complex problems. It then reviews a set of literatures, gathering insight for a leadership model and identifying gaps with respect to system redesign and transformation. Three cases of successful system transformation are studied: integrating the European Community in the years following World War II, introducing public school choice in the United States through reforms in the state of Minnesota, and building a system of universal health coverage in Mexico. The cases are analyzed from the perspective of leadership and contribute to a “two track” process model of (1) problem solving and adapting, and (2) system shaping. The task of leaders is to motivate and manage activity along both tracks, across multiple timescales, and thereby “play the long game.” The dissertation concludes with a set of eight practical principles for leaders to keep in mind when trying to redesign systems, and initial thoughts on implications for the theory and practice of policy analysis.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Literature Review and Discussion

  • Chapter Three

    Case Studies of System Transformation

  • Chapter Four

    Common Factors in Successful Transformation

  • Chapter Five

    Playing the Long Game While Responding to Immediate Needs

  • Chapter Six

    Practical Principles for System Transformation

  • Chapter Seven

    Conclusion and Next Steps

  • Appendix A

    Preliminary Thoughts on Advancing System Redesign to Address Complex Policy Challenges

Research conducted by

This document was submitted as a dissertation in June 2023 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the doctoral degree in Public Policy Analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. The faculty committee that supervised and approved the dissertation consisted of Robert Lempert (chair), Paul Davis, Laurie Martin, and Alain Enthoven (external reader).

This publication is part of the RAND dissertation series. Pardee RAND dissertations are produced by graduate fellows of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, the world’s leading producer of Ph.D.’s in policy analysis. The dissertations are supervised, reviewed, and approved by a Pardee RAND faculty committee overseeing each dissertation.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND’s publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.

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