What’s in a name? Reflections on integrity, relationships and systems

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Integrity: i) The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, and ii) The quality of being whole and complete (The Cambridge Dictionary)

In my six years as Executive Director of Global Integrity, we have not spent much time explicitly reflecting on our name. I’d always assumed that we inherited it, having spun off from the Center for Public Integrity in 2005, and felt that perhaps it referred to our early focus on measuring the “implementation gap” between policies on paper and policies in practice. As a result, when people have asked about our name and what it means I’ve tended to deflect the questions. But in recent months, I’ve begun to see the value of integrity, and of our name, in new ways.

For much of the governance, transparency and anti-corruption community, integrity – although often poorly defined – is about individuals and organizations behaving in trustworthy ways; being honest, practising what they preach, and meeting agreed norms and standards. These meanings of integrity are important, but just as our focus has broadened beyond measuring the implementation gap, to supporting locally-led, learning-centered and adaptive approaches to addressing complex and systemic governance-related challenges, so might our thinking on integrity.

Integrity might more usefully be thought of in terms of the strength and quality of a system’s integration; the nature and inclusiveness of the relationships and processes that connect the various actors and make the whole system more than the sum of its parts. The behavior of individuals and organizations matters hugely – individuals shape systems, as systems shape individuals – but it is these relationships and processes that drive a system’s dynamics, building or undermining its capacity for innovation, learning and adaptation, and thereby shaping the system’s ability to generate solutions to complex challenges. (See here for a closely related argument which puts trust center-stage).

Integrity in this sense – if you’ll excuse the uncharacteristic universalism – shapes the effectiveness of all systems, in all places, at all times, at all scales and in relation to a wide variety of issues. Families or organizations finding their way through the challenges of a pandemic; networks of community-based organizations providing services to marginalized populations; local governments innovating around public service delivery; coalitions of nonprofits working to defend democracy; countries seeking to recover from periods of traumatic and polarizing leadership; global alliances focused on addressing climate change. In all of these systems, and in others whose purposes and values we may not share, effectiveness is shaped by the relationships that make the whole more than the sum of its parts, and which hinder or enable adaptive responses to complex and dynamic challenges.

Building on many decades of systems thinking across the natural and social sciences, our systems perspective has evolved for us in recent months through conversations amongst colleagues and by our collective efforts to foster greater alignment between our strategy and our projects. In particular, it has emerged from our ongoing struggles to set out theories of change that: are based on a realistic assessment of the messy and complex ways in which change actually happens; and, are pitched at a level of abstraction that enables them to provide the right mix of structure and flexibility that is needed to engage effectively with that complexity.

More recently, my thinking has been informed by reading and conversations around “ecologies” as living patterns of relationships, human learning systems, Actor-Based Change frameworks, and sense-making and management in complex systems. These strands of work all emphasize four key things: i) the complex and systemic nature of reality; ii) the fact that relationships are what make that reality; iii) the ways in which outcomes emerge from system dynamics; and, iv) the contribution that individual actors can make to transforming system dynamics by operating in ways that prioritize listening, learning and adaptation. They also raise challenging and important questions about how systems change approaches can hold on to notions of accountability, effectiveness and impact in complex and emergent systems, and about how such approaches can address the stubborn power asymmetries and conflicts that often hinder systems change.

Last but not least my thinking has been given a boost by the reading, reflection, and coaching I’ve been doing about how I might in my personal life best strengthen the dynamic webs of relationships that make life, including my life, what it is (see also listening with love – an ethic of love, in bell hooks’ terms – by Kyende Kinoti at Feedback Labs). For me, personally, this reflection has been very energizing. For Global Integrity, this strand of thinking is informing the evolution of our approach to supporting partners’ efforts to address complex governance-related challenges, helping us to build on our strategy and its focus on listening, learning and adaptation.

Informed by these interconnections and reflections, our latest thinking (see diagram below) starts with the reality that we are a small player in a complex system of actors and our belief that we can contribute best by enhancing the integrity (relationships & processes) of those systems and thereby their ability to address complex social challenges. We do this indirectly, by providing practical support and accompaniment for civil society and government partners as they tackle issues relating to corruption and the use of public resources*.

By doing this, we aim to develop our, and our partners’ capacity to operate in the learning-centered and adaptive ways which enable organizations to shape and strengthen the integrity and effectiveness of the systems they are part of. Last but not least, inspired by Ruth Levine’s advice (here and, somewhat differently, here), in all that we do, we aim to be led by our partners, adding value where they, and we, think we can; helping to shift and share, rather than consolidate, our power.

 

What we do and why we do it (Our theory of action and change)

click to expand


As we move forward into a new year, it feels good to be finding a fit between the name we have on paper and what we do in practice. It also feels good for me, to be in a place where my personal ponderings and my organizational reflections are themselves increasingly integrated. With system integrity and the relationships through which it is built as our guiding star, we look forward to making a stronger contribution to our partners’ efforts to address governance-related challenges, by nurturing the emergence of systems that are full of integrity and better able to meet people’s needs.

To learn more about what we did to strengthen systems of integrity in 2020, check out the highlights from our Annual Report.

 

(*) Some readers may be wondering where openness – transparency, participation and accountability – fits into the picture. That is a question for another piece, but in broad terms we value openness because it provides a fertile ground for the rich relationships and dynamic processes – the system integrity – that can foster innovation, learning and adaptation (see the value of open governance, from 2016).  

Alan Hudson
Executive Director

5 comments on “What’s in a name? Reflections on integrity, relationships and systems

  • Dr. Md. Hasan Ali says:

    Excellent you working for the globe. Do you have any intention to operate your activities in Bangladesh? If yes. I am eager to be one of beginner for such good initiatives in my country.

    Regards
    Dr. Hasan Ali

    Reply
      • Thanks for your comment Dr. Ali. We are certainly open to working in Bangladesh. If there are local partners working on issues relating to corruption and the use of public resources who feel that we could provide useful support, then we’d be happy to explore.

        Reply
  • David Jacobstein says:

    Alan,
    Many thanks for this thoughtful post – I agree that considering the process of change through an ecological lens can be powerful, and I’ve always liked the work by Pritchett and others on “crawling the fitness landscape” that uses an ecological lens to consider multiple potential equilibrium that a system can reach, and applies that to social change. Perceiving those sets of interconnections and finding ways where your work can amplify positive outcomes through that web of connections seems to me the way to both focus one’s own work while maximizing the efficiency of one’s effort, particularly if you discount other forms of investment against the likelihood that the system will change in response to all kinds of shocks and windows, and work to improve learning and connections of partners is certainly a niche that is underfilled. Hopefully others will take notice to find their own niches!

    Reply
  • Thanks for your helpful feedback David. We certainly appreciate the value of looking at systems and change through, as you put it, an ecological lens. In her amazing book, Smaller Arcs of Larger Circles, Nora Bateson talks about ecologies as “living patterns of relationships” and “co-evolving sets of relational dynamics between parts of a system.” That seems to us to be a very fruitful way of thinking about how change happens in the living systems we are part of, and how one’s relationships with others shape the ways in which such systems work.

    Reply

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