Achieving health outcomes for children and young people that set them on a path to life-long wellbeing can be a complex task for agencies and local councils working on the systems and environments that influence health and wellbeing.

With environments, local priorities, contexts and challenges varying from one local government area to the next, implementing a one-size-fits-all strategy risks poor outcomes.

To address this, the Institute for Health Transformation (IHT)’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) is working with VicHealth to collectively support 13 Victorian municipalities through the VicHealth Local Government Partnership (VLGP). The aim is to help each organisation to bring a more systemic approach to encouraging and supporting their young people to grow up active, connected, and healthy.

Project lead Dr Josh Hayward, a member of GLOBE, says local councils are already working with VicHealth to upskill their workforces. This includes using evidence-informed strategies to champion the voices of young people in their communities, and to include them in decision making and community consultation processes.

Participating councils are taking part in a number of core and stretch modules, giving them access to tools, resources and frameworks they can use to bring their health promotion work to life.

One of the two foundation modules underpinning this work is supplied by GLOBE. The module focuses on systems thinking, a concept that helps communities to consider the health and wellbeing of children and young people as a multi-faceted problem. They can then access a set of tools developed by GLOBE to assist in identifying underlying complexities, and addressing them effectively.

What is systems thinking?

Dr Hayward describes systems thinking as a process of taking into account all the factors that may impact someone’s health and wellbeing.

“It’s the opportunities that they might have, the things that are around them in the environment where they live, the things they have access to,” he says. “What’s their food environment like? What’s their physical activity environment like? What policies affect them? What’s the culture of their community? What are the norms in their social groups?

“We can’t just take one element of the problem and try to change that on its own, when there are so many other parts of the system that are bearing some impact on that as well.

“So, in a sense, it’s just trying to think more holistically about health problems, and trying to really understand and acknowledge the way in which the things that affect our health also affect one another.”

Empowering young people to get involved

Many of the engaged communities that GLOBE is directly working with are involving young people in the process, Dr Hayward says.

“They have made amazing efforts to include children and young people in the process of systems thinking,” he says. “Some communities are achieving great engagement with their local schools, consulting with school kids.”

“There have been communities that have worked with their young people to include them in conversations about decision-making with council and their partners.”

From consultation to creative solutions

The VicHealth-led project started in early 2021. In spite of rolling pandemic-induced lockdowns, GLOBE conducted a training module in systems thinking during the second quarter, involving more than 100 practitioners from 13 Victorian councils.

“They were still able to use these methods to reach their communities in creative ways online. In some cases they were able to work in schools; we saw lots of different great approaches and adaptations,” Dr Hayward says.

With community consultation continuing throughout 2022, this year sees opportunities for participating municipalities to begin to creatively utilise insights generated by systems thinking.

“They’ve started transitioning from consulting with community, and learning what the community sees as important, through to using those insights to help guide how they’re going to actually implement the modules,” he says.

The work to turn feedback and insights into implementable new practices will ensure municipalities better equipped than ever to respond to the specific health and wellbeing requirements of their own youth community.