Complex Systems

Systems Thinking and the Public Service 

Reform, renewal and refinement are constant features of public services. Research into change in this arena tends to focus on the impact of specific interventions. The process of change in public services, however, involves collaborations between multiple government and non-government organisations and actors; it occurs in complex systems that have multiple boundaries and feedback loops from which new ways of working can emerge in unpredictable ways.  


Our research is aimed at delivering: 

  • enhanced conceptualisation of policy issues and problems 
  • improved understanding of change processes 
  • more effective policy implementation 
  • improved evaluation and measurement  

Competitive Advantage 

We study different aspects of change at multiple levels and work in partnership with policy makers, practitioners, advocates and service users to develop and apply methods in new ways to help understand and solve real world problems. Researchers in this theme have a broad range of theoretical and practical expertise and undertake research and consultancy work to adapt and apply systems frameworks to support policy design, implementation and evaluation. 

Successful Applications

Dr Karen Gardner, Professor Helen Dickinson and Dr Miriam Glennie have been using systems thinking concepts to evaluate a healthy skin program established by a not-for-profit in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory that aims to eliminate crusted scabies. 

Dr Karen Gardner has applied systems concepts to improve implementation of performance management programs with partners in the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector. 

Study With Us

Master of Business 

Much has been written about systems thinking and its potential application in public administration, yet few university courses offer students opportunities to apply key systems concepts and consider their implications for public policy design and management.  

Our People and Systems course, part of the Master of Business, considers the role of people in delivering organisational effectiveness and high performance, in conjunction with the impact of their managers on the outcomes. The concept of systems thinking and the role of people as part of those systems is explored.  

How can systems thinking enhance stewardship of public services? – PSRG Issues Paper No. 4 
Karen Gardner, Sue Olney, Luke Craven, Deborah Blackman 

Getting smarter with data: Understanding tensions in the use of data in assurance and improvement-oriented performance management systems to improve their implementation – Health Research Policy and Systems 
Karen Gardner, Sue Olney, Helen Dickinson 

Implementation of continuous quality improvement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health care in Australia: A scoping systematic review – BMC Health Services Research 
Karen Gardner, Beverley Sibthorpe, Mier Chan, Ginny Sargent, Michelle Dowden, Daniel McAullay 

Impacts of Continuous Quality Improvement in Aboriginal primary health care: a scoping systematic review – Journal of Health Organisation and Management 
Beverly Sibthorpe, Karen Gardner, Mier Chan, Dan McAullay, Michelle Dowden, Ginny Sargent 

System Effects: A Hybrid Methodology for Exploring the Determinants of Food In/Security' –  Annals of the American Association of Geographers 
Mental models for conservation research and practice – Conservation Letters 
Katie Moon, Angela Guerrero, Vanessa Adams, Duan Biggs, Deborah Blackman, Luke Craven, Helen Dickinson, Helen Ross 

Institutions and wicked problems in Global Encyclopaedia of Public Administration, Public Policy and Governance –Ali Faramand (ed.) 
Gemma Carey, Fiona Buick, Eleanor Malbon 

The unintended consequences of structural change: When formal and informal institutions collide in efforts to address wicked problems –  International Journal of Public Administration 
Gemma Carey, Fiona Buick, Eleanor Malbon