Our Tomorrows- A Community Sensemaking Approach
The State of Kansas piloted ‘Our Tomorrows,’ a novel framework to capture family experiences about thriving and surviving, to ensure that policies and practices meet the needs of families. The approach makes a large amount of data (over 2,500 narratives) directly accessible to decision-makers and the individuals who provided it. Communities make sense of patterns that emerge from stories to create a portfolio of small actions that will make Kansas the best place to raise a child.
The Kansas vision for the early childhood system is: All children will have their basic needs met and have equitable access to quality early childhood care and educational opportunities, so they are prepared to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. In 2019, the State of Kansas received a large federal grant (the Preschool Development Grant) to conduct a needs assessment and craft a strategic plan for the early childhood system where all children can thrive. The grant leadership team of state agencies utilized this opportunity to harness the power of Our Tomorrows’ innovative Community Sensemaking Approach to map families’ lived experiences and create policies and programming adaptive to families’ needs.
In this context, Our Tomorrows set out to achieve three goals:
1. Gather stories about thriving and surviving from families across Kansas utilizing a complexity-informed narrative research approach called SenseMaker.
2. Make sense of patterns that emerged from the stories through Community Sensemaking Workshops with stakeholders at various levels of the system.
3. Take action and ennoble bottom-up change through Community Action Labs.
From a complexity perspective, these goals translate to developing a ‘human sensor network,’ embedding citizen feedback loops and sensemaking processes into governance, and complexity-informed intervention via portfolios of safe-to-fail probes.
Leadership from a new Governor and the support of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas Department for Children and Families, and Kansas State Department of Education aligned to endorse the approach and call for statewide participation. This ambitious effort collected 2,666 stories from all 105 Kansas counties to include frontier, rural, and urban voices. Stories were collected online, on paper, and through interviews conducted by Citizen Journalists. These anonymous stories were then returned to people who shared their story and other early childhood stakeholders at fourteen Community Sensemaking Workshops where participants reviewed story packs and identified emerging patterns about the conditions under which families thrive. Dialogue was rooted in the ways that respondents interpreted their own story in SenseMaker quantitative metadata. Our Tomorrows then launched Community Action Labs to support local portfolios of Actionables that were quick, local, and inexpensive (up to $2,000).
The innovation was scaled statewide in 2019. Future plans are in motion to institutionalize the Community Sensemaking Approach as an embedded mechanism to foster innovation in the Kansas early childhood system. The story collection effort will be deepened in 2020 through the launch of the Our Tomorrows 2.0 SenseMaker framework. A statewide Story Bank hosted at the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund will be the centralized access point for all narratives collected with the new framework. To support decision-making, the Sensemaking Analysis and Visualization (SAVVY) Dashboard will provide early childhood stakeholders real-time access to patterns emerging from narratives.
Local capacity for SenseMaker data analysis and community-led sensemaking workshops will be developed by the Our Tomorrows team to encourage bottom-up change. Over time, the Community Action Lab structure could continuously stimulate complexity-informed intervention by sourcing safe-to-fail experiments from community members. Along with supporting the state’s early childhood innovation portfolio, this bottom-up change will align with policy and program decisions at all levels. To scale the Community Sensemaking Approach beyond Kansas, a likely step will be to replicate the process for other recipients of the US Preschool Development Grant implementation award.
The Our Tomorrows innovation was inspired by a partnership with the Observatory of Public Sector Innovations (OPSI) Anticipatory Innovation Governance Program and the Cynefin Centre for Applied Complexity. Our Tomorrows consulted with OPSI and the Institute for the Future on developing Community Action Labs to incorporate Facets of Innovation and futures and foresight methodologies. As a result, each Community Action Lab Actionable application was categorized along the Facets to provide insight on the disposition to innovation across the state. Our Tomorrows has laid groundwork to introduce anticipatory innovation to state decision-makers while providing avenues at the community level for immediate participation. The Cynefin Centre for Applied Complexity consists of a network of SenseMaker practitioners that have provided valuable guidance on story collection management and sensemaking workshop facilitation.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Our Tomorrows Community Sensemaking Approach is an innovative application of complexity-informed methods toward citizen engagement in four ways:
1. It is the first instance of an ongoing SenseMaker feedback loop between citizens and decision-makers across an entire early childhood system.
2. Every person is empowered to act according their skillset and level of authority by asking themselves, “What can I do tomorrow to create more stories like the ones I want to see and fewer like the ones I don’t?” This “fractal engagement” puts problem-solving power in the hands of communities, not just high-level decision-makers.
3. SenseMaker data was returned to communities for analysis and action planning in a comprehensible and accessible way through Community Sensemaking Workshops.
4. Community Action Labs crowdsourced a portfolio of safe-to-fail experiments for complexity-informed intervention strategy through small grants.
What is the current status of your innovation?
As of this submission date, Our Tomorrows has completed one full cycle of the Community Sensemaking Approach. A proposal was submitted for three additional years of Preschool Development Grant implementation funding to deepen the story collection process with Our Tomorrows 2.0, expand Community Action Labs, and integrate the SAVVY dashboard into a social innovation platform. Work is already underway to test the Our Tomorrows 2.0 story collection framework and launch the statewide Story Bank in 2020.
The Our Tomorrows team is completing a retrospective developmental evaluation of project activities and mapping the strategies that were utilized over the course of 2019 to inform future work. Lessons learned are being disseminated through academic publications and presentations to the evaluation and SenseMaker communities. A formative evaluation of Community Action Labs will occur in spring 2020.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The Governor of Kansas, Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas Department for Children and Families, and Kansas State Department of Education integrated the innovation into the needs assessment and strategic plan for the state’s early childhood system. Service providers and citizen journalists collected stories and hosted events, creating a holistic citizen engagement network to support the Community Sensemaking Approach.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Kansas state agencies and early childhood stakeholders used SenseMaker data for systems alignment, workforce development, adaptive program management, and building political will for systemic reforms. Community members participated in Community Action Labs to test innovative ideas developed through the sensemaking process. All stakeholders have learned to apply complexity principles and embed SenseMaker into their day-to-day operations along the way.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Our Tomorrows transformed mindsets by creating an avenue for everyday Kansans to shape decisions that directly affect their lives through sensemaking. The process developed trust between communities and state leaders because lived experiences were centered and translated into action. Quantitatively, the Our Tomorrows Community Sensemaking Approach resulted in:
1) Twenty-four (24) organizational partners, eight citizen journalists, and many community champions shaped the collection effort that contributed to a public data dashboard and aggregated story patterns.
2) Forty-six (46) individuals or organizations proposed local solutions for Community Action Labs. This number doubled the expected response. The Labs allowed them to safely take a risk on new ideas without jeopardizing pre-existing funding.
3) Five (5) state agencies with high-level decision-makers that are interested in complexity-informed intervention strategies, innovation, and futures methodologies.
Challenges and Failures
The tension between meeting community partners ‘where they were’ and adopting new methods for community engagement styles was a constant challenge. Although there was universal interest in trying something new, people were unsure how to begin or were stuck in old ways of working. To address this problem, Our Tomorrows pursued the ‘adjacent possible’ by breaking down big ideas into manageable steps. Emerging goals of state leadership, feedback from community partners, and technical infrastructure challenges required abrupt pivots and creative solutions at scale without time for testing. Our Tomorrows communicated vision, principles, and introduced new vocabulary to maintain coherence and provide stability amidst this uncertainty.
Conditions for Success
Open-minded leadership and adequate infrastructure for grassroots participation were the most important conditions for success. The support of the Governor’s Office and state agency leaders resulted in a statewide commitment to the SenseMaking process that spread to elected officials, state boards, advisory groups, and advocacy organizations. With this support from the top, Our Tomorrows began an intensive partner on-boarding process to build local capacity for story collection, sensemaking, and Community Action Labs. The strong relationship with local partners created a bottom-up demand for the Community Sensemaking Approach that increased leadership’s investment in the innovation. This dialectic introduced the trust and stability to the process needed for sustainable change.
The Community Sensemaking Approach can be replicated by organizations, agencies, or governments that seek to use citizens’ experiences to drive complexity-informed change. With appropriate capacity and onboarding, ‘sensemaking’ organizations can adopt the SenseMaker tools, data visualization infrastructure, and strategy developed by Our Tomorrows to bolster community listening and social innovation. Our Tomorrows partners are replicating the approach locally by integrating community feedback loops into their day-to-day organizational practices. We have discussed a direct replication of Our Tomorrows in other states that have received federal grants to strengthen their early childhood systems. We are also exploring a social innovation platform collaboration with the Agirre Lehendakaria Center in the Basque Country (Spain) and sharing our approach with the members of the Cynefin Centre for Applied Complexity.
Implementing the Community Sensemaking Approach requires that practitioners play a leadership role to get others to join in a shared struggle to solve a complex problem. Lessons learned were:
1) People need to understand the why, how, and what of a process to feel secure enough to take an innovative risk. “Breadcrumbing” is an approach we developed to educate partners about innovative ways of doing things without overwhelming them with jargon and academic language. We introduced the ‘Why’ of the Community Sensemaking Approach. Then participants experienced the ‘How’ by completing program activities. Through guided reflection afterwards, we provided the language of the innovation to describe the ‘What.’ This staged process introduces complexity concepts in a consumable and respectful manner.
2) Communication strategies must be adjusted based on the audience. The statewide project required that we use top-down and bottom-up approaches to establish feedback loops. In response, we developed “fractal knowledge management” techniques to share the same ideas in a variety of ways to provide coherence across the system while not overwhelming people who had less shared context.
3) The project team must use complexity techniques to deliver the project and be an exemplar for others. For example, Our Tomorrows utilized the Cynefin framework for situational assessment and as a guide to adjust our practices accordingly. We began the Community Action Lab process with a long application like a request for proposals. After some confusion from our partners, we recognized that we were approaching the application as a ‘clear’ problem rather than a complex one. We adjusted our approach to reflect the heuristics for action in the complex domain and created a three-question application to probe for unexpected ideas. By loosening constraints, the Labs achieved greater engagement.
4) A locally-driven innovation portfolio is an iterative process built on trust and supportive coaching.
Our Tomorrows resulted in youth engagement and new dialogue on deep cultural issues. One citizen journalist was a 13-year-old who went door-to-door asking people to “make their community a better place” by sharing a story. Upon hearing of this effort, a state legislator unexpectedly and emotionally shared the youth’s story at a state meeting. This was a pivotal moment that led to an increased commitment from state leadership to center family experiences to inform decision-making.
The youth was then invited to join a panel and share his hopes for his community and has been an inspiration for others across the state. The Our Tomorrows Story Bank provides a de-politicized lens for discussions about core issues that often devolve into partisan debates, like health care. By framing dialogue with stories of thriving or surviving, people across the political spectrum can think about problems from the perspective of families. Then, they can think about what they have the capacity to change.