Systems Thinking

Transforming advice to improve lives

We are leading a revolution in advice provision, as cuts to services force the sector to “think outside the box” when it comes to doing more with less.

As the welfare safety net has been gradually removed, and cuts to services have been felt, unsurprisingly, demand for advice has increased significantly. However, cuts in legal aid and local authority spending has placed resources under further pressure, and there is a very real risk quality of care could be compromised. Faced with such challenges, we don’t believe that trying to ‘do things better’ is good enough – we need to learn to ‘do better things’.

We have pioneered the use of Vanguard Consulting’s Systems Thinking in the advice sector – enabling providers to move away from the purely “sticking plaster” approach, and expand to tackle underlying issues and causes.

From our work we know that advice can help public services learn where and how things go wrong. Commissioning advice to ‘do better things’ could help public bodies improve services and reduce costs.


Our work to “rethink advice” has been supported since 2007 by the Baring Foundation.

The starting point was the RADICAL project, working alongside Vanguard Consulting to study advice services in Powys and Oxford. This led to the publication of It’s the System Stupid! in 2008.

BOLD was established the following year to explore our learning further and its implications for the commissioning of advice services. We were then – and remain still – concerned that the competitive procurement of services too tightly defines specifications, reduces collaboration and causes advice organisations to be narrower in their scope, leading to worse outcomes for the people who use them.

We support our members, local authorities and others to commission and design advice services that recognise the complex realities of people’s lives and seek to deliver what matters to the people who use them.

We have put together a short presentation – Designing Outside-In – that introduces the Vanguard Method in advice services.

What have we learnt?
Advice services struggle to cope with huge amounts of demand they face – mostly generated by public services failing to do something, or do something right, for their customers. We have found this particular, preventable issue makes up 30-40% of the demand for advice.

Addressing this waste not only frees up capacity in advice organisations, it also has a positive impact on the quality of the public service. For example, in Nottingham, advice services and the local authority worked together to change the way they dealt with benefits problems. Independent evaluation showed that the time taken to process cases fell in the advice service from 142.2 days to 30.8 days. For the benefits services it fell from 56.3 to 16.3 days.

And it’s not just the drain on capacity and resources. In Coventry, we worked with new economics foundation to produce a Social Return on Investment analysis of the cost of failure in the system for the individuals (called Social Cost) and for wider public services (Cost to State).

More recently, we have worked with advice providers and commissioners in Portsmouth, leading to a new advice service – Advice Portsmouth – being commissioned using systems thinking principles. By studying demand for advice together, commissioners and providers learned what mattered to the people using the service and could design to deliver just that. The new approach also means that the relationship between the service and the commissioners has changed from a contractual one to a partnership in which measures and data are used to understand what works and to continuously improve. Click on the link below to read about the Portsmouth experience.

What can we do for you?

We help individual advice services, local advice networks and commissioners rethink what the provision of advice achieves, and how it can contribute to fixing problems in communities.

We use the Vanguard Method for Systems Thinking to understand how advice services work and how they fit with other systems such as benefits administration, housing and homelessness services, support services, debt recovery or access to credit.

Because the Vanguard Method is designed to support the learning of leaders, we don’t work like most consultants. We will help you study and challenge your thinking, but our approach is about supporting you on the front line of your services to experience what happens, use data gained in the experiment, and discover what works. What you learn dictates where you need to look next.

If you want to break the mould in your local area, contact us for more information about what we could do for you

For more information contact our consultants by phone on 0300 777 0107 or 0300 777 0108. Email us at or visit the consulting part of our website

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