What are Issue Maps?

Issue Maps Aug 17, 2021

Systems and Complexity

Issue mapping is a tool that helps people make sense of and respond to complexity. By complexity, we mean the sheer number of factors that shape a situation and affect the possible responses. Every day we are faced with complexity, both as individuals and collectively. Complexity occurs in what we call systems.

Systems are collections of elements that interact to produce something. "Elements" could be people, organizations, animals, ideas or any other entity. In a system, the elements change in response to what goes on around them. Each element in a system has its own perspective and its own set of values, goals and assumptions, broadly construed.

An example: the family as system

Because it is a system, a family is what it does, not just what it looks like or how it feels. What it does depends on the people involved and the situation in which they find themselves. A family is not consistent across time and place. It changes and adapts its goals depending on situational factors, such as economic conditions or public opinion.

Oof. Time for a beer.
*Crying into my beer*

How do these ideas apply to politics and public policy?

In the public sphere, where we often talk of "issues" -- such as health care or education reform -- it is not unusual for a single issue to involve a wide range of related topics. For example, what are the most important issues facing America's schools? There are many possibilities: standards and assessments, curriculum and instruction, finances and governance. The list goes on. An issue map helps us get a clearer picture by identifying all aspects that seem relevant to the particular problem in question. By bringing together these pieces of information, we can identify patterns in how different problems affect one another and better understand how they might be resolved.

What is "systems thinking"?

Systems thinking is the art and science of interpreting any given thing through the lens of systems and complexity. A systems thinker is someone who makes a habit of thinking this way.  This school of thought has identified many helpful tools for getting specific insights into different systems. We'll be discussing the concepts of feedback, patternicity, evolution and how system elements interact across all of our published work.

What is an Issue Map?

An issue map starts at the center with a primary concern--the "issue"--which may be an idea, topic, policy or question blocking progress. From there it radiates outwards with related issues. The issue map organizes the information so that it can be examined from different viewpoints. As we do so, patterns, interrelationships and common solutions become apparent.

For example, we can look at the issue of reforming American Democracy to make it work more effectively. We begin with a circle that represents the overall topic heading. We then can expand out a layer to look at several related issues, such as voter suppression and voter turnout. And at yet another layer, we can look at the issue of campaign finance reform. The point is that we can identify a subject in its broadest sense and drill down to get a more detailed perspective.

Issue mapping is a way to narrow down the complexity, to identify patterns of cause and effect and illuminate what matters. To do so requires an understanding of how people in different roles interact when confronted with a complex challenge or opportunity for change. Just like systems, our maps and diagrams are constantly evolving. We welcome any members of our community to join us on our tool of choice, Kumu.io, to contribute to our work!

Additional resources:

http://www.systems-thinking.org/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41568-020-0240-7

https://hewlettfoundation.kumu.io/hewlett-foundations-the-madison-initiative

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