Systems thinking and sexual grooming; or, “be careful what you wish for”

“The force’s priorities at that time were mainly crimes including robbery, burglary and car crime due to mandatory targets set by the Home Office.” [1]

“The assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester police, Dawn Copley, acknowledged “mistakes were made and victims let down”. She laid some of the blame at the force’s focus in 2008–10 on targeting such crimes as burglary.” [2]

“In the early days of family planning in India, program goals were defined in terms of the number of IUDs implanted. So doctors, in their eagerness to meet their targets, put loops into women without patient approval.” [3]

The first quotation pertains to the systematic sexual grooming and abuse committed against young women in South Yorkshire, particularly Rotherham, dating primarily from 2007-2010. The second quotation relates to a similar set of crimes committed in Rochdale around the same time. The third quotation is from a 2008 book that stems from the thinking of Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1940s, and all three quotes are examples of the same thing. The thing is called ‘systems thinking’ and the  clue is in the  ‘targets’/’goals’ language.

I am a system. I am part of any number of larger systems; my company, my community, my country. Whilst I am a subsystem of those systems, I have subsystems of my own; my brain, my cardiovascular system, my central nervous system.

Each of them – subsystems, systems, parent systems – has a goal. Often, more than one goal, and generally one finds that the larger and more complex the system, the more goals it has. The smaller the system, or should I say the more specific the system, the fewer or more precise the goals are.

Let me give you an example. My lungs are a system, and their purpose is to transport oxygen from the environment into my bloodstream. They also transport carbon dioxide in the opposite direction. Actually lungs are a fabulously complicated system in themselves, but they have a very specific goal, generally speaking, so we can describe them as a small system.

My lungs are a subsystem of my body. They’re one of many subsystems that keep me moving, thinking, talking, sleeping, eating and, unfortunately for you, typing.

But they also help me (as a collection of subsystems) function as a subsystem of other systems; as an employee for example, or a central defensive midfielder with an eye for a Glenn Hoddle-esque long pass back when I could still pass as a functioning player (and could see more than 6 feet).

Each of the systems that I belong to has a goal, maybe more than one. My company wants to make money. My football team wanted to win games. And, very importantly, these goals can be measured. My company has a bank account, which we can check. My football team can look at the league table and see how many points it had.

The measures are important, for two reasons. Firstly, they can tell us how the system is performing. But secondly and possibly more importantly, if they’re badly designed, they can become goals of the system itself.

Let’s look at that second point more closely, because that explains exactly what happened in all three examples above. When the Home Office released their strategy to cut crime for the period 2008-2011, there was a focus on certain types of crime which were perceived by the public to be especially pernicious – burglary and car crime, to choose two main examples. These crimes were to be monitored, with targets set for cutting and solving crimes.

Many of you will already have worked out how this story ends. With a finite amount of resources (that were steadily, and in many cases heavily, being eroded due to financial pressure) Police forces concentrated on those crimes which were being measured. Crimes that were not being measured were – well, let’s not say ignored because I’m sure that that’s not correct, but they certainly did not enjoy as high a priority as other crimes, and were not investigated with as much zeal. Police forces measured on the amount of burglary and car crime = Police forces investigating burglary and car crime. And not much else.

There’s something else worth mentioning here, which is when systems clash. The Government’s goal is to be re-elected in five years; it’s disingenuous to suggest that a political party targets anything else. They do that by having a favourable perception with the public. If the Government believes that the public is most worried by burglary and car crime, then that’s what they (via the Home Office) tell Police forces to investigate. The goal of the Police force shifts, via a badly designed system goal, from being concerned with all crime to being concerned with politically trendy crime. And now, neither system is functioning correctly, because neither of them are keeping taxpayers and voters safe.

Let’s look at another example. Let’s imagine for a moment that you work for a certain chain of high street newsagents who are obsessed with flogging tat at the checkout whilst foisting on you an obscene number of vouchers and tokens that you don’t want.

Your line manager, the store boss, tells you that you can have a pay rise if you can increase the number of customers you serve in an hour. Fair enough, you think. My goal is to serve people who want to buy things. But your boss’s boss, the area manager, is being assessed on the amount of sales. So, when he visits, he tells you to make more of an effort to get people to buy bars of chocolate they don’t want during the checkout process. All of a sudden you have conflicting system goals – one is to serve people faster, and the other is to spend longer serving people so that you can upsell at the point of the sale. It’s common sense to say that those system goals are mutually exclusive.

In fact, a lot of systems thinking is common sense, which doubtless you’ve already thought at least once if you’ve made it this far. It does make you wonder why no one at the Home Office thought that the Police, faced with shrinking resources, would concentrate on investigating just those crimes they were being measured on. “It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto non-existent blindingly obvious,” wrote Douglas Adams. “The cry ‘I could have thought of that’ is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn’t, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too.”



[3] ‘Thinking in Systems: A Primer’, Donella Meadows, Chelsea Green Publishing

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