Can Frontline Workers Stay on the Frontline and Still Make Systems Change?

Can Frontline Workers Stay on the Frontline and Still Make Systems Change?
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Until recently, I had no idea what ‘systems’ or ‘systems change’ was in relation to the work I was doing. I was a frontline worker in a day centre that supported single homeless households in unsupported temporary accommodation. My days were full of chaotic drop-ins, complaints of poor housing conditions, supporting people with drug and alcohol addictions, housing referrals, mental health referrals and general health and wellbeing support. I may not have known what ‘systems’ was – but as a generalist frontline worker supporting individuals with a variety of specialist needs, you quickly realise how complicated and difficult it is to navigate pathways of support. Beyond this was the constant difficulty of challenging decisions and working in a way that seemed counterproductive to effectively supporting your vulnerable clients as a result of rules outside of your control. I can understand how those who come into our service may feel decisions are made to them rather than with them or for them – frontline workers feel this as well, albeit not as acutely. Their voices and frontline worker’s voices are simply not heard.

This bothered me because it didn’t seem to be logical that those who have the most practical experience have the least input into decision-making. Frontline workers journey with their clients daily in order to ensure their needs are met even though no two cases are ever exactly the same. Therefore, they learn to navigate a complicated and non-user-friendly system to best support their clients, who predominantly have complex needs, which means workers develop a priceless insight into what works well and what does not. However, it is often hard to see the bigger picture as a frontline worker because there is not time or space to step back and reflect on what all this knowledge means. Decision-makers are the big-picture seers. They have a responsibility to ensure everything continues to work effectively and efficiently, the power to set the course of systems and to make change happen. The only hiccup is that although this change often has a direct impact on the work of frontline staff and those using services, the big picture roles and ‘doing’ roles are largely seen as separate, non-overlapping and therefore we have designed hierarchies that reflect this separation. There is little cross-over between the frontline and decision-makers. Illogical? I think so.

Not long after I started thinking about these things – I was given two opportunities that gave me an avenue to harvest insights and challenge the reality of frontline and decision makers working in isolation. My role changed within Justlife. I was now a part-time frontline worker and part-time research & development worker, a change that happened just before I had the opportunity to join the first cohort of Systems Changers. I began to learn the value of systems thinking and how my insights from the frontline could influence and had a right to influence the bigger systemic picture. I was being encouraged to think big while also doing the daily complex frontline work. These were useful lessons as I began to straddle the divide of frontline work and research & development within my job role.

It wasn’t easy at first. Some of the initial conversations I had were discouraging. I remember being told that my new role(s) were not a natural coupling and that it probably wouldn’t work, but that if it did, at the very least it would be hard. But I kept at it and learned that it was ok to question things that didn’t make sense because it might help decisions in the long run. For example, during this time criteria for supported accommodation began to change. Many homeless hostels required referrals to include another support need, i.e. drugs, alcohol or mental health. However, when individuals signed up that met this criteria, they discovered a zero tolerance policy for any continued drug or alcohol use. This contributed to a growing number of homeless households that we could not refer into accommodation. Many of these decisions happen from a monetary saving perspective, which is understandable in a time of less resource, however shortsighted in their scope. I began to learn that decisions like these stand in the way of meaningful systems change, something that could if insights of both frontline workers and their clients were included.

‘although frontline workers have priceless insights, it is almost impossible to get their voice heard unless they are able to get the attention of those in a position to create change.’

Throughout the course of the programme and in my split role at work, I continued to ask myself, ‘Can frontline workers stay on the frontline and still make systems change? How might this work?’ The longer I thought through Systems Change, the more I realised that frontline workers are a small part of a very large, complex system. Systems, however large or small, are determined by what their end goal or vision is – to reduce homelessness, hospital admissions, deficit – and that goal has a lot of power. This is the power of narrative, of how the world understands what we are trying to accomplish, as well as the power of who is included or excluded within the system. The complexity of systems made me increasingly think, that although frontline workers have priceless insights, it is almost impossible to get their voice heard unless they are able to get the attention of those in a position to create change. If this is to be the frontline worker – does this mean that to truly influence change they would need to become a decision-maker? I do not think so, but I do think that there needs to be a shift in cultures within systems that assume these roles are so separate that they do not make sense together. This shift would ensure frontline workers can have the space to think about their insights and that decision-makers naturally include them in design of change.


It has now been a year since I’ve written these words. Looking back through them – the clarity of insight still resonates. Frontline workers can make systems change because they are a vital part of the system. If frontline workers were listened too more often, alongside other excluded voices, the strength of the sector’s collaboration and creativity in innovation would improve.

Frontline workers hold a part of the solution to the challenges in our clunky and at times ineffective systems, therefore if we create solutions without them, we end up with a solution that addresses only the part, not the whole. But, let’s be real. This is going to be hard because it takes time and necessitates the creation of new work-cultures across sectors. I was told once that it wouldn’t be possible – I disagree. It is possible, and it is systems changing, but it is hard work that has to be intentionally done and embedded in current practices. It will then continue naturally and with increasing ease. More than a year on from the completion of my systems changers experience, I am still as convinced as ever of its promise of change and would encourage everyone to get stuck in to doing things differently and to not be afraid to try things. I think you will be surprised at the change that happens.

Christa Maciver is the Strategic Lead in Unsupported Temporary Accommodation Unit at Justlife and participated in the Lankelly Chase Systems Changers programme 2015. Read the report ‘From where I stand’: How frontline workers can contribute to and create systems change, providing fuller detail on systems change insights along with the projects and perspectives of the group of frontline workers who participated during 2016.

@JustLifeUK @lankellychase

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