Systems Change

Why This Topic is Important

    Most of the Partners in Policymaking curriculum focuses on the what of change – the changes in policy and action, values and attitudes, that are necessary if people with developmental disabilities are to enjoy a decent life as participating, contributing and valued members of the community.

    This topic focuses on the how of change – basic skills, actions and strategies that can be used to change the behavior of professionals, policymakers, and politicians.

    The problem, of course, is that there is no magic formula for successful change making. You don't really know what worked until you've succeeded. We do know that it is simply not enough to just complain or even to be right. Successful change making requires creativity, tenacity, focus, vision, and the capacity to negotiate and persuade. The issues, concerns, and strategies discussed here have been identified as important considerations, at least, among effective policymakers.


Changing a system's behavior is no easier than changing the behavior of a friend or relative.

It is always a good idea to be clear about what you want:

  • You should have an idea of what you don't like... of what's not good enough...
  • You should have an idea of what you think is right and what services or opportunities or ways of doing things should be used.
  • You should have a clear vision of the type of world you would like to have.
  • You should try to clarify for yourself "why is this right..."
  • You should look around to see who else might agree with you (turning "you" into "we").
  • You should look at the reasons why others might be reluctant to agree with you or to support your ideas.
  • You need to look to see if your vision, or your shared vision, can be divided into smaller parts or steps which can be achieved more easily one part at a time.
  • You need to explore with others, when possible, various ways to pursue your vision in part or in whole (Dream Big!)

This process of planning for change is a lot like developing an individual plan:

  • You want to have specific, measurable goals and objectives.
  • You want to decide which strategies to try first.
  • You want to decide who is going to be responsible for working on which objective and how they'll proceed.
  • You want to know when you're going to monitor your progress toward each objective and how.
  • You need to understand when it's time to regroup to re-examine your strategies, your successes, and the appeal of your current objectives.

Review of issue/action planning/organizing

Here are some considerations for developing a strategic plan.

  • Pick an Issue. Beyond caring and knowing what you like, or don't like, you need to select issues that you care about. The Partners training sessions have covered a number of issues which may make you motivated. There are a large number of other issues desperately in need of advocates as well.
  • Build Your Energy. For more energy, visit the best programs and the worst programs. This will give you something to support, something to be outraged about, and a lot of equal protection frustration that there could be such a difference.
  • Gather Together With Others. If you're part of an organized group, discuss the issues and select those that generate the most passion. If you're not part of an organized group (or if your group isn't willing to take action) look for other committed people to recruit to the cause.
  • Hold Public Officials Accountable. Know your elected officials. Put their names, addresses and phone numbers next to your phone. Visit your elected officials as a constituent. Provide them with written information about your concerns. Write letters to them. Vote in every election. Support good candidates. Make sure they know about good programs and why they're good. Make sure they know about – and and maybe visit – bad programs and know why they're bad. Let them see some of your vision of the way things should be. Otherwise, how can they make the right choices?
  • Refer to (use) Making Your Case to help guide you through the process of partnering with policymakers.
  • Watch the Media. React to stories that don't reflect best practices, your vision, or encourage/promote the status quo. Get to know local reporters and editors. Have a positive relationship and let them know when you're aware of some positive human interest success stories and programs that are models of the way things should be. They need to know when conditions are so bad that they need an exposé or a highly critical review by the press. Reporters and editors need to know you well enough that, if they have questions or if a problem pops up somewhere, they want to call you first. That probably won't happen (as with elected officials) unless you nurture the relationship and develop mutual respect at times when the sky isn't falling.
  • Reward Positive Behavior. If you're part of an organization, make sure you publicly give out awards for positive articles and positive behavior (in support of "the cause") by legislators, media representatives, employers, school personnel, or anyone else who deserves to be reinforced. Say "Thank You" frequently.
  • Don't Forget Politics. Be active in the electoral system, especially if there are positive candidates from any party who share your values and who need your support. Run for office. Many Partners graduates are now elected officials.
  • Get Connected. Join social justice organizations, parent organizations, advocacy and/or self advocacy organizations. Join listservs. Learn what organizations exist, what their missions are, and whether you need to work with them for change.
  • Speak Up and Out. Speak out against labels, abuse, neglect, suffering, segregated programs, the lack of consumer involvement, lack of needed homes.
  • Support Allies. Actively support colleagues and friends. Show your support with calls, notes, thank yous. Stand up with and for people who are allies.
  • Write. Write letters and emails; letters to the editor; letters of support; letters to complain; letters to suggest; letters to officials. Remember that coalitions and letter writing campaigns can also have a major impact. (Keep copies of letters for your files, for officials, for attorneys, and for follow-up).
  • Testify. Personal testimony... any citizen can give testimony. Learn about it. Ask about it. Just do it! Get familiar with how to draft testimony.
  • Educate. Sponsor workshops, meetings, speakers bureaus, speeches, information brochures, posters, newspaper articles, conferences, consumer meetings.
  • Communications. In addition to newsletters, town meetings, letter writing, and awards, consider phone campaigns, advertisements, press releases, press conferences, booklets, pamphlets, seminars, slide shows, movies, resource guides, cable TV programs, radio or TV talk shows, exposés, ps, public service announcements, web pages and listservs.
  • Legal advocacy. Law is a strategy. Review all it has done. Review what changes would not have been made without litigation. Think about it.
  • Fact finding forums. These include citizen investigation panels, team meetings, community polls (of consumers, of parents, of neighbors, of the electorate at large), seminars by expert panels, radio and TV question and answer programs.
  • Demonstrations. These are an established part of the American landscape of social change. From women's suffrage to civil rights to the rights of people with disabilities, this is an acceptable and a powerful way of sending a message. The powers-that-be do not expect traditionally powerless groups to make demands. Be creative! Be effective!
  • Learn How to Run a Meeting. At some point we all need to know how to organize and how to run a meeting to be effective.


Use this chart to choose your issues, then fill in this guide to developing your strategy. Be specific. List all the possibilities.

Click here to view a copy of the Midwest Academy Strategy Chart.