A Social Lab for BC Family Justice System?

My February post suggested that a “Social Lab” may be a way to tackle the “implementation gap” in justice reform. On June 1 and 2, an important step was taken towards using this approach in British Columbia as a strategy to improve the family justice system for children and families. The BC Law Foundation / Legal Services Society Research Fund funded a two-day workshop in Vancouver facilitated by Adam Kahane and Monica Pohlmann of Reos Partners. This post highlights the key learnings coming out of those two days.

What is a Social Lab?

The workshop provided both a deeper exploration of the nature of a Social Lab (what it is and how it could work) AND gave participants an opportunity to experience the Social Lab process through a variety of group exercises and dialogue sessions.

A “Social Lab” is a “multi-stakeholder platform through which a diverse team of stakeholders works together to address a complex challenge.”

We learned that a Social Lab has three key elements:

  • It is systemic – it addresses structural causes not just symptoms or effects. It recognizes that we cannot deal with complex problems in a fragmented way. We need to look at the “system” as a whole.
  • It is participatory – it involves a diverse group of participants from across the system and is not composed only of experts or authorities
  • It is experimental – it nurtures iterative prototyping through a portfolio of promising solutions.

In addition, a Social Lab:

  • does not result in a report telling other people what to do. Instead, it focuses on solving the problematic situation
  • is an ongoing, coordinated platform that delivers results over time on multiple initiatives and is not only a one-off project
  • focuses on robust evaluation but uses a unique method of evaluation that is supportive of innovation.

While a Social Lab approach is new for the justice system, it has been used effectively around the world in other contexts including:

A current Canadian Social Lab is strengthening early childhood development in Calgary.

The workshop involved 20 participants and, in the spirit of the Social Lab, was as diverse as could be arranged in the early stages of this initiative. In addition to family lawyers, mediators, Judicial counsel, Legal Aid, Ministry of Justice representatives and the Law Foundation, the participants included:

  • An experienced family psychologist
  • A First Nations educator and conflict resolution practitioner
  • A medical doctor practicing in the Downtown East Side
  • The leader of a large social services agency
  • A young man (originally a refugee to Canada) who works with refugee and immigrant youth
  • A social services agency representative who has worked extensively with immigrant women and single moms
  • A credit counselling expert
  • A management consultant

While not discussed specifically, many of the participants had personally experienced the family justice system in their own journeys through separation and divorce.

How is a Social Lab different than what we have done before?

Based on the literature and the workshop experience, a Social Lab would be different in three primary ways (following the key characteristics noted above):

  • Systemic approach: One important insight influencing the discussions at the workshop was that the problem is not primarily a legal problem with a social aspect, but a social problem with a legal aspect. It follows that one must carefully define the system and look more broadly than just the “legal” system. As pointed out by the National Action Committee report,the “system” intersects with other sectors in critical ways. Further, we need to look more deeply at the underlying root causes of the problems including the deeply rooted barriers to change. Workshop participants examined family justice-related events → patterns →structures → mental models in order to unearth the often unspoken assumptions we hold about the system and discussed how they might inhibit meaningful change.
  • Participatory focus: previous reform attempts have involved primarily the “usual suspects” – those who are influential and knowledgeable within the current justice sector. Justice insiders tend to think that they know best and do not normally seek to engage others outside the justice system to identify and implement solutions to these complex problems. However, these “others” are often better able to see things from the perspective of those fundamentally affected by the system and they bring other-sector experience and wisdom to the discussion. One of the major take-aways from the workshop was the recognition that the input of the nonjustice participants was incredibly insightful, helpful and challenging. They have much to say and much to offer and we need to listen. It was humbling and surprising for those of us working within the system to realize that we were surprised by this revelation! We learned that the group assembled to be the “convened group” for a future Social Lab for BC family justice would need to be larger (40 approximately) and much more diverse. We worked on a very long but exciting list of potential participants.
  • Experimentation/innovation: The traditional approach is to identify problems and then design, implement and evaluate “pilots” or “projects” which are intended to test one proposed solution. In his book, The Social Lab Revolution, Zaid Hassan is highly critical of this ‘business as usual” project planning approach in part because it causes one to be married to the proposed solution. He recommends a more Silicon Valley approach of rapid prototyping of many solutions all at once. Prototyping is different than using pilots and projects because it requires a trial and error approach during which the proposed solution is tweaked based on feedback throughout and solutions that are not working are discontinued and energy focused on those that appear promising. This requires a willingness to embrace failure as a learning opportunity – definitely not something the legal community is used to. During the workshop, participants pretended they were the Social Lab group coming up with a variety of initiatives to try out. To our surprise, building on the group’s previous analysis, we were able to come up with six or seven interesting ‘high leverage initiatives’ that held promise for quick action (in furtherance of the NAC’s admonition to put words into action!).

As one participant noted, a Social Lab is different because it involves “scalable initiatives, not just talk”.

What would a BC Family Justice Social Lab look like?

It could be a diverse convened group of about 40 people committed to a 3 – 5 year period, supported by a “secretariat” to organize and support the platform, overseeing an action-oriented portfolio of creative initiatives to solve this problematic situation (close the implementation gap).

By the end of the workshop, the group was ready to move forward, identifying the following next steps:

  1. Establish a Steering Committee (a number of participants volunteered)
  2. Get some initiatives up and running soon
  3. Find initial funding (infrastructure and initiative)
  4. Engage a small staff support to start
  5. Develop the diverse convened group
  6. Develop connections with other reform initiatives

There was definitely a powerful momentum and energy coming out of the workshop. The consensus was that a Social Lab approach certainly has the potential to be a promising way forward.

We are working to build on that momentum. Stay tuned.

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