In our previous blog, on scale, we asked ‘Is bigger always better?’ (spoiler alert: it depends!). In this blog we consider the implications of time scales.
Our work asks us to conceptually move between the past, present and future. We help program planners and decision makers to identify the current state and map our way to a desired future state and outcomes. So, considering policies and programs over the much longer term isn’t too much of a stretch (on with your Tom Baker era Dr Who scarves everyone!).
Many Indigenous readers will be familiar with the concept of seven-generation thinking or being a good ancestor: the practice of thinking through actions and their repercussions situated within a timescale of several generations. This long-run view of time is typically not held in Western policy interventions: instead, the question tends to be ‘What makes this a good idea here and now?’ But perhaps the question we should also be asking is ‘At what scale, and for how long?’
If we consider scale as a factor in achieving outcomes and in the possible creation of unintended negative effects, and time as the multiplier of these, it follows that the ‘seven-generation thinking’ lens may afford us valuable insights. What can we usefully learn by considering the potential impacts (individual, family, community, local, state, national) an intervention might have over the long-term future if delivered at various scales?
For example, a place-based, community-led intervention might be extremely effective at making lasting change on issues at the individual, family and community level over generations, for example by building knowledge and awareness, and by giving individuals the tools to shift behaviours and scale impacts themselves.
A national program might initially have a lighter impact at the individual, family, community scale, but reach more people and have a greater impact on systems or policies at the state or national scale. Over seven generations, this might begin to create outcomes at the individual, family or community scale. Some media campaigns, for example the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap campaign, illustrate this concept well.
The essential questions, really are, ‘At what scale will the greatest benefit be achieved and sustained over the very long term? Are there any unintended consequences which might negatively affect future generations?’
In a recent article, ‘Success in Policy Piloting’, the authors write, ’Time is central to the character of pilots, which imply some transitory constellation of actors and elements intended to foster the development of some permanent form.’ The seven-generations lens invites us to interrogate that permanency, to question to what degree the intervention is likely to address future need, or whether it is best delivered in a short timescale with less need to institutionalise it.
In summary, the following questions may be helpful during program design and evaluation.
Asking ourselves some of these questions on scale might allow us to see more quickly when scaling up or out may be more or less likely to succeed, where it is valuable and relevant, and where it may be more beneficial to continue at the small scale, as well as to gather and systematically share, learnings about what works at what scale and why.
 Checkland, K. et al, 2021. ‘Success in policy piloting: Process, programs and politics’, Public Administration, 4-5, 15