Our Tomorrows- A Community Sensemaking Approach

The State of Kansas piloted ‘Our Tomorrows,’ a novel framework to capture family experiences about thriving and surviving, to ensure that policies and practices meet the needs of families. The approach makes a large amount of data (over 2,500 narratives) directly accessible to decision-makers and the individuals who provided it. Communities make sense of patterns that emerge from stories to create a portfolio of small actions that will make Kansas the best place to raise a child.

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Innovation Overview

The Kansas vision for the early childhood system is:  All children will have their basic needs met and have equitable access to quality early childhood care and educational opportunities, so they are prepared to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. In 2019, the State of Kansas received a large federal grant (the Preschool Development Grant) to conduct a needs assessment and craft a strategic plan for the early childhood system where all children can thrive. The grant leadership team of state agencies utilized this opportunity to harness the power of Our Tomorrows’ innovative Community Sensemaking Approach to map families’ lived experiences and create policies and programming adaptive to families’ needs.

In this context, Our Tomorrows set out to achieve three goals:

1. Gather stories about thriving and surviving from families across Kansas utilizing a complexity-informed narrative research approach called SenseMaker.

2. Make sense of patterns that emerged from the stories through Community Sensemaking Workshops with stakeholders at various levels of the system.

3. Take action and ennoble bottom-up change through Community Action Labs.

From a complexity perspective, these goals translate to developing a ‘human sensor network,’ embedding citizen feedback loops and sensemaking processes into governance, and complexity-informed intervention via portfolios of safe-to-fail probes.

Leadership from a new Governor and the support of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas Department for Children and Families, and Kansas State Department of Education aligned to endorse the approach and call for statewide participation. This ambitious effort collected 2,666 stories from all 105 Kansas counties to include frontier, rural, and urban voices. Stories were collected online, on paper, and through interviews conducted by Citizen Journalists. These anonymous stories were then returned to people who shared their story and other early childhood stakeholders at fourteen Community Sensemaking Workshops where participants reviewed story packs and identified emerging patterns about the conditions under which families thrive. Dialogue was rooted in the ways that respondents interpreted their own story in SenseMaker quantitative metadata. Our Tomorrows then launched Community Action Labs to support local portfolios of Actionables that were quick, local, and inexpensive (up to $2,000).

The innovation was scaled statewide in 2019. Future plans are in motion to institutionalize the Community Sensemaking Approach as an embedded mechanism to foster innovation in the Kansas early childhood system. The story collection effort will be deepened in 2020 through the launch of the Our Tomorrows 2.0 SenseMaker framework. A statewide Story Bank hosted at the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund will be the centralized access point for all narratives collected with the new framework. To support decision-making, the Sensemaking Analysis and Visualization (SAVVY) Dashboard will provide early childhood stakeholders real-time access to patterns emerging from narratives.

Local capacity for SenseMaker data analysis and community-led sensemaking workshops will be developed by the Our Tomorrows team to encourage bottom-up change. Over time, the Community Action Lab structure could continuously stimulate complexity-informed intervention by sourcing safe-to-fail experiments from community members. Along with supporting the state’s early childhood innovation portfolio, this bottom-up change will align with policy and program decisions at all levels. To scale the Community Sensemaking Approach beyond Kansas, a likely step will be to replicate the process for other recipients of the US Preschool Development Grant implementation award.

The Our Tomorrows innovation was inspired by a partnership with the Observatory of Public Sector Innovations (OPSI) Anticipatory Innovation Governance Program and the Cynefin Centre for Applied Complexity. Our Tomorrows consulted with OPSI and the Institute for the Future on developing Community Action Labs to incorporate Facets of Innovation and futures and foresight methodologies. As a result, each Community Action Lab Actionable application was categorized along the Facets to provide insight on the disposition to innovation across the state. Our Tomorrows has laid groundwork to introduce anticipatory innovation to state decision-makers while providing avenues at the community level for immediate participation. The Cynefin Centre for Applied Complexity consists of a network of SenseMaker practitioners that have provided valuable guidance on story collection management and sensemaking workshop facilitation.

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