Are we program rich, but system poor?

Creating new programs shouldn't always be the first response when problems arise. Sometimes, we have to step back and establish a system — a guiding light.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Project Wichita as a city plan. Project Wichita covers the entire 10-county region surrounding Wichita. It also referenced the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth (BREG), which has changed its name to the Regional Growth Plan.


In June, Wichita was one of 10 American cities awarded the title of "All-American City" following a competition in Denver held by the National Civic League. It marked a return to form for Wichita in some ways, as this was the first time in 10 years it had won the award.

Competition judges focused on "enhancing health and well-being through civic engagement," and cited the success of Open Streets, League 42, the Wichita Police Department and the Health and Wellness Coalition as factors in Wichita's winning.

It's tempting to say these programs themselves are what put Wichita over the edge. But maybe there's something larger at play.

When it comes to solving problems within a city, new programs are typically the go-to solution. But in order to be effective, programs have to be tied back to a system — a principle or guiding light that defines how we attain a certain outcome.

If a system is the machine that produces a specific outcome, individual programs are the gears and parts that make that machine operate.

Individual programs could be working really well on their own, but if they're not tied into a system effectively, they can't do as much to move our city forward as they might be able to otherwise. This means if we really want to allocate resources in the most efficient way possible, we have to define our system before we create the programs that drive that system.

If we don't, we could end up with inefficiencies, redundancies and resources allocated to problems that may not be priorities for the future of our city.

Programs are incredible tools to drive a city forward, and Wichita has no shortage of excellent ones. But creating new programs shouldn't always be the first response when new problems arise. Sometimes, we have to step back and establish a system — a guiding light. When we do this, we may find that the gears we need are already turning, we just need to recalibrate them to a new machine.


In any given city, you'll have several programs and organizations dedicated to a single issue. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as each of these programs is aligned to a system or solution they're all chasing.

In Wichita, this can be seen in how we help the homeless. A simple search turns up over a dozen organizations tackling different parts of homelessness. Some provide food and necessities while others focus on temporary shelter. Others focus on transitioning people into permanent housing, setting them up with jobs and support.

Each individual program or organization is like a gear tied into the system that is tackling the issue of homelessness. If they don't work together with a similar vision, benchmark and goals, their work could quickly become counter-productive, ineffective or even wasteful.

In the case of homelessness, United Way of the Plains has partnered with Sedgwick County to create Impact ICT (formerly Wichita-Sedgwick County Continuum of Care)., which tracks outcomes, coordinates grants and conducts the annual homeless count. Essentially, this helps the programs stay in sync with the system.

In 2011, Wichita homelessness peaked at 634 people living on the streets and 140 chronically homeless. According to the most recent statistics, that number is now down to 571 people on the streets and only 33 chronically homeless.

Sometimes, systems simply aren't working and need to be re-imagined. A recent example of this is the new Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition that brings together law enforcement, businesses and nonprofits to uncover new ways to deal with Wichita's mentally ill and substance-dependent populations.

Other times, new programs need to come in to optimize the system — like changing out parts in a machine.

An example of this is last year's merger of the Wichita Children's Home and Kidzcope, which both assist children in crisis. Previously, there may have been an extra gear. Now, the single gear can become more efficient, likely allowing resources to go further and streamline solutions to the actual problems they seek to address.

But some problems are truly community problems, requiring multi-faceted approaches that involve the entire city, or even the entire region. How do we create a system to address these types of problems?


In 2006, community leaders in Cincinnati, Ohio and Northern Kentucky recognized their region's students were falling behind. They brought together the entire community — superintendents, philanthropists, CEOs and community shareholders — to have a discussion.

They agreed that additional programs, projects or initiatives wouldn't do the trick. That's when a town coroner spoke up to coin this idea.

"We are program rich and system poor," he says, according to Forbes. "And until we become system rich, we will not only continue to see low college graduation rates, we will keep seeing youth who have lost their lives on my tables."

The result of this discussion was StriveTogether, a community partnership in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The idea that systems were more important than individual programs caught on in many other cities across the country. By 2012, Forbes reported more than 80 other communities that embraced similar ideals of community collaboration.

These collaborations give individual communities greater stakes for creating solutions, allowing great ideas to come from more places. It also allows leaders to think outside the box, getting past the simple ideas of creating new programs into the actual root of the problems.

As for outcomes, StriveTogether saw 81 percent of students trending in the right direction in 2013, based on 34 measures of student performance. This is compared with 74 percent in 2012 and 68 percent in 2011.

The idea is simple but profound. Some problems can't be solved by a single program. James Chung says Wichitans, in particular, are always seeking the silver bullet solution. But sometimes, it simply doesn't exist.

"It may not be sexy, but this is what we originally meant by civic infrastructure," Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities, told Forbes. "If you think about it, we were trying to align primarily public resources to get better results at scale. What we are trying to do now is actually connect the dots within the chaos we created, and Strive happens to point us toward how to do this in education."

If you think about it, we were trying to align primarily public resources to get better results at scale. What we are trying to do now is actually connect the dots within the chaos we created, and Strive happens to point us toward how to do this in education.Ben Hecht

Shared community vision, evidence-based decision making, collaborative action, investment and sustainability are all best practices for putting this systems thinking to work, Hecht says. So how does this work in Wichita?

The Greater Wichita Partnership is an example of one system, covering an entire region in several different ways. Within this partnership, Downtown Wichita focuses on quality of life and human capital downtown, the Regional Growth Plan focuses on strategic planning for the regional economy and the Partnership itself works to attract new business opportunities and share regional data.

Project Wichita goes even further to ask important questions of people from virtually every walk of life to find a regional vision. Through developing action plans, Project Wichita has defined focus areas, or systems, and the existing resources, or programs, designed to address those focus areas. Now that we have these laid out, we can consider our approaches and calibrate as needed to solve our region's problems.

Clearly, we know how to do systems in Wichita. But we also have many problems that are still in need of attention. Human Capital, Perception, the Business Cycle and Entrepreneurship are the ones we cover here. If these are still problems after years of programming, perhaps it's time to re-imagine our systems.


Just as the problems of yesterday are no longer the problems of today, the problems of tomorrow are probably going to look a little different. This requires a constant calibrating of our systems and perhaps the implementation of some brand new systems.

To deal with a fairly recent increase in violence between police and people with mental health issues, Oakland is looking to new solutions. Instead of sending police to handle reports of disturbances due to mental health patients, the city is considering sending mental health experts.

This new system is evaluating how to bring together existing mental health services and which areas of Oakland need programs like this the most. It's adapting to the problems that crop up as time goes on.

But sometimes we need an upheaval of old systems built to solve even older problems.

Einstein once said, "Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them."

That means systems can't stay the same if they are not successful in solving the problems they seek to solve. And neither can we as a collective mindset.

Systems-first thinking works and is evidenced by the progress we've seen here in our own city. But we still have to abandon the idea of the silver bullet. Our problems, which will always exist to some extent, and will certainly change over time, will never be solved with a single program, idea, organization or individual. It takes countless people, all connected to a system — the common goals and ideas that say Wichita is worth saving and is worth growing.

Communities are never saved by a single action. They're healed gradually, slowly and systematically.

The Chung Report Team


For a simple look at the perception challenge, check out this short video

Learn more about the Four Challenges

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