Whole System Approach Overview

To realise Scotland’s public health priorities we need to work more effectively together as part of a whole system approach (WSA). Whole system working can be defined as applying systems thinking and tools that enable: 

“An ongoing, flexible approach by a broad-range of stakeholders to identify and understand current and emerging public health issues where, by working together, we can deliver sustainable change and better lives for the people of Scotland.”  

A whole system approach works with communities and stakeholders to both understand the problem and to support identification and testing of solutions. System change is a long-term endeavour, often delivered through incremental steps and collaboratively with many partners.

A whole system approach to place and community

Drawing on established models and engagement with stakeholders, Public Health Reform has defined a set of nine core characteristics of a whole system approach:

Applying a whole system approach 

A whole system approach involves applying systems thinking, methods and practice to better understand public health challenges and identify collective actions. Adopting a whole system approach to Scotland’s Public Health Priorities is a long-term endeavour. It will require new partnerships between a broad-range of stakeholders to deliver better lives for the people of Scotland.

All stakeholders have an important role to play in the successful delivery of the public health priorities using a whole system approach. Relevant organisations will vary depending on the priority but will include:

  • Academia
  • Community Planning
  • Health and Social Care
  • Local Government
  • National Government
  • NHS
  • Private Sector
  • Third Sector

There are many tools and methods that have been developed to support whole system approaches. Put simply, there are three phases that can help stakeholders adopt a whole system approach:

Adapted from FSG Systems Thinking Toolkit. Putting systems thinking into practice in your organization and Australian Prevention Partnership Centre (2018) Systems Change Framework.

Next Steps

Work is underway to identify and work with early adopters of the WSA at both a local and national level to begin to put this approach into practice. This will involve testing new ways of working and sharing learning.

Our long-term ambition is to see wide adoption of a WSA to support collaboration on Scotland’s Public Health Priorities and action to improve healthy life expectancy and reducing inequalities.