A Systems Thinking Approach to Border Security
“Whenever I have an excuse to use Systems Thinking, I do,” says Peter Heffron, who was an international development consultant for many years. “Systems Thinking gets people out of their own heads to analyze problems in a transparent,
easily sharable way.”
When Heffron tuned into the chaotic U.S. debate over border security, he saw an acute need for the problem-solving capabilities of Systems Thinking. Most people agree that the U.S. borders should be protected, but senators,
representatives, and the Executive Branch differ on how to do so. Several factors complicate the problem: the relationship between security and poverty south of the border, low-cost labor demand in the U.S., immigration, the drug trade,
and the policies that address each of these issues.
On January 25th, 2019, the disagreement became a governmental crisis. The President gave Congress three weeks to fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. If they didn’t cooperate, the President would shut down a large portion of the
federal government for the second time in a year.
“I felt that Systems Thinking and other problem-solving tools and expertise could help Republican and Democratic senators and representatives through a seemingly impossible task,” says Heffron. “Given the three-week deadline imposed
by the potential second government shutdown, it was worth suggesting a practical way to move forward.”
Heffron has often seen how Systems Thinking can help diverse stakeholder groups gain shared understanding and form consensus around solutions. “I read the first Limits to Growth in 1972 and was fascinated by how the authors developed
a model that showed how the planet could be headed for disaster,” says Heffron. “In the 1990s, as a Project Manager with CARE [an international humanitarian agency] in Honduras, I wanted to apply that kind of systems modeling analysis
to a participatory strategic planning process for developing low-income communities.”
Heffron has often seen how Systems Thinking can help diverse stakeholder groups gain shared understanding and form consensus around solutions.
Just as Congress debates the best way to achieve border security, aid delivery in Honduras inspired many opinions. Heffron and his peers from Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services all experienced problems with overseeing
relief and development programs in Honduras. To move past these problems, they “wanted to establish a participatory strategic planning process that included economically marginalized program beneficiaries, the formally educated
and those with no formal education, policy makers, participants of all genders and ages, and technical people.”
Heffron asked Barry Richmond from High Performance Systems (now isee systems) if HPS would help CARE, Save the Children, and Catholic Relief
Services design a new strategic planning process. “It was amazing to see such a diverse group in action,” said Heffron. “With the guidance of HPS staff and Systems Thinking principles, methods, and tools including
Stella® software, everyone’s ideas were taken seriously and discussed in a format that allowed us to come up with a viable, inclusive, and prioritized development strategy for local, national, and international aid organizations.”
Heffron applied that Systems Thinking experience to his proposal to end the border security deadlock. He described it as “a bipartisan, win-win, fast-track solution to the border security issue.” The proposal addresses three
constraints: time to reach a solution, intransigence of the parties, and a lack of understanding of both the root of the problem and cost-effective options to solve it.
To address the three-week time constraint, the proposal considered physical barriers/walls and emphasized the need for more time to establish a responsible, comprehensive, bipartisan plan and legislation. The proposed initiative
would start with a two-day meeting of the bipartisan congressional border security committee facilitated by a Systems Thinking expert.
Heffron presented the intransigence of the President’s “a southern border wall or near-complete government shutdown” versus the Speaker of the House’s “border security, but no wall” positions as "a lose-lose approach." He
suggested a joint White House-Congress statement that acknowledges a mutual interest in border security and includes consideration of physical barriers and other border security-related interventions, as recommended by a team of
non-political, bipartisan professionals.
[Heffron] believes that dedicated Systems Thinking organizations and developers like isee systems should lead the exploration of ways for everyone to become more engaged in the local, national, and global problem-solving process.
The committee would use the facilitator's advice and Systems Thinking methods to identify key border security problems and their primary causes and effects. The results of this exercise would identify the main elements of
comprehensive border security over one year, five years, and further into the future, which in turn would inform the priorities of the comprehensive border security analysis. The workshop would also produce an action plan,
the scope of work for a professional review of issues and recommended solutions, and a list of the expertise needed to implement the plan, including the specialized knowledge of Systems Thinking experts.
Heffron initially emailed the proposal to fourteen senators and fourteen representatives who represented a balance of parties, gender, and geographic locations. Once Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi formed the House-Senate Conference
Committee on Homeland Security to deal specifically with the border security issue, Heffron also sent the proposal to the seven senators and ten representatives on the committee, with copies to CNN and the Washington Post.
Heffron hasn’t received acknowledgement from the committee. However, given the challenging deadline and full Congressional agendas, he didn’t expect feedback, so is not disheartened.
His main takeaway from this problem-solving experience is the critical need for Systems Thinking principles, methods, tools, and expertise to be ubiquitous in schools, universities, local and national government, the UN and other international
organizations, and society in general. He believes that dedicated Systems Thinking organizations and developers like isee systems should lead the exploration of ways for everyone to become more engaged in the local, national, and
global problem-solving process.
He considers the recently proposed Green New Deal, proposed to address climate change and economic inequality, to be a worthy Systems Thinking application. “It’s a popular but technically flawed plan that could be given more credibility
through a Systems Thinking approach,” says Heffron.
And that, in fact, is his next project.