Systems Change – A Living Example

The Peter McKenzie Project (PMP) whānau considers themselves very fortunate to have access to the experience and wisdom of Gael Surgenor, Director of The Southern Initiative. Gael is a member of the PMP Committee and through her and her colleagues PMP has been able to learn and understand how systems change works for good.

The time for business-as-usual practices has passed. The status quo isn’t realising the necessary social and economic changes quickly enough for comprehensive and sustainable transformation. What’s really needed is a complete alteration to how current problematic and oftentimes failing systems operate.

Many of us understand that systems change is about addressing the root causes of social issues, which are often thorny and deeply embedded. It is an intentional process designed to fundamentally revise the mechanisms and structures that cause the system to operate in a particular manner. In both obvious and subtle ways, systems often work better for some groups in society than others, compounding the situation negatively for those who already face the biggest challenges. So, what does systems change actually look like in practice?

Cue The Southern Initiative (TSI). This Auckland Council place-based regeneration programme ‘champions, stimulates, facilitates and enables social and community innovation in South Auckland’. TSI is dedicated to supporting its communities to become prosperous and resilient places where tamariki and whānau thrive. Innovation is in its DNA and it takes a unique approach to its systems change mahi.

One of the ways in which it does this is through social procurement: using the process of purchasing goods and services as an intentional tool to generate benefits beyond the actual goods and services being bought. It’s been described as having extraordinary potential to deliver social, cultural and environmental impact. For example, a local government in an area with high unemployment levels could strategically use procurement to help address this issue, by requiring successful tenderers to employ a percentage of their labour force from the local unemployed population.

Roadworkers about to head out on a job from Independent Traffic Control, who are one of the HWEN members.

TSI is doing just that. It’s using the Auckland Council and council-controlled organisations’ $3bn purchasing budget to create employment and enterprise opportunities for South Auckland. It’s a trailblazer in this space in Aotearoa and it takes an inclusive, collaborative approach to how it conducts its business. Respectful relationships are key.

“Working with our community in a way that respects the mana of the people is an absolute necessity. The team is exploring, developing and testing ways to drive innovation and transformation alongside families, local changemakers, grassroots entrepreneurs, businesses, agencies and other organisations,” says Gael Surgenor, Director TSI.

There have been some notable wins so far. A partnership between Auckland Transport and TSI has resulted in the contractor for the circa $100m Eastern Busway 1 project agreeing to some significant measurable outcomes for this mahi. These key performance indicators will see female employee participation boosted, the wage gap between Māori and Pacific peoples and the rest of Auckland closed, and the number and quality of business opportunities for Māori and Pacific businesses increased.

The last measure has been supported by the establishment of He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN), a network for Māori and Pacific-owned organisations designed to increase supplier diversity and connect these businesses with clients and buyers. Since TSI launched HWEN in 2017, it has expanded its membership to more than 100 businesses, built the capability of members through learning workshops, and brokered two tenders that include supplier diversity clauses which will ensure more opportunities for HWEN members.

HWEN member Tom Majoor, is an electrician and the director of HLS Ltd

This methodology has been encouraged by supplier diversity practices overseas. In Australia, the Indigenous Procurement Policy which introduced a 3% federal procurement target, has seen contracts with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned businesses increase from $6m to $1.83bn in four years. TSI is aiming to mirror this incredible success rate. More and more, tender documents are including a weighting for social outcomes. It may be small, but it has the potential to be what tips the balance in favour of one supplier over another.

TSI’s mahi is characterised by initiatives that pursue the best opportunities for local communities, with the greatest potential for personal, whānau and community transformation.

“Social procurement is a game-changer for tackling inequality. It represents the flip side to simply providing welfare benefits by recognising and building on the innate skills within our people and bringing them into the mainstream economy.

For a business, it’s about walking the talk. It provides a way for organisations to be credible in their social responsibility commitments and can have positive benefits like improved engagement, positive brand identity and competitive advantage. We want to see the creation of shared prosperity where nobody gets left behind,” says Gael.

TSI is germinating a different approach to an old problem. It’s building influence from a solid base of evidence and it’s striking while the iron is hot.

“We’re lucky to have a team of determined, passionate changemakers who are working in partnership to create conditions that allow for prosperity. Along with our community, we’ve set an audacious goal and we have the appetite and energy to try new things. We’re all in this together and collectively, we’re creating an environment that breeds success,” says Gael.

It’s clear that unless we attempt to use radical solutions to deal with the causes of social challenges, we risk merely lessening the consequences of broken systems, rather than fixing them once and for all. Our efforts will only serve as a Band-Aid, and we will not create the change we want to see. Systems change is not the only way of tackling social problems, but it provides an intentional framework for recognising, assessing and counteracting them so that true transformation can be achieved.