How Municipalities Can Pursue Strategic Policy Solutions to Complex Problems

November 3, 2023 - (4 min read)

By Martha Fedorowicz, Urban Institute; Sarah Weller Pegna, NLC

Every day, cities across the country confront complex, interconnected issues—from health to housing to workforce development to climate change. Municipal leaders have the power to bring about transformative progress toward health and equity in their communities, but often, do not have the opportunity or resources to explore the root causes or gather evidence that could support the policy and systems changes needed to advance equity in their communities.

To respond to these challenges, NLC’s Cities of Opportunity (CoO) initiative partnered with the Urban Institute to develop a new Policy and Systems Change Compass process (“Compass”). CoO and Urban then partnered with three cities—Dubuque, Iowa; Roanoke, Virginia; and Tacoma, Washington to pilot the Compass.

The final Compass process takes municipal teams on a journey across 10 steps that support them in identifying and implementing strategic, evidence-based policy solutions to complex problems.

So how can cities apply some of the Compass best practices to their policy work? Here are a few key steps from the Compass:

Identify Root Causes

A foundational step of the Compass is taking the time to uncover the roots of community challenges. The challenges that many cities are experiencing—low workforce participation, lack of affordable housing, high levels of crime—are often the symptoms of the problems we need to address and not the main problems themselves. For example, low workforce participation can be a symptom of a lack of affordable childcare options, a lack of transportation options, or a failure of companies to recruit among certain populations. This focus on root causes, rather than symptoms, ensures city leaders identify more strategic and impactful solutions.

Set Population Goals and Desired Systems Changes

When setting the vision for success, it is important to not only set goals for what changes we want to see among the target population, but also to explicitly state the systems changes needed to achieve that goal. The Compass guides teams in setting systems goals that define how policies, programs, processes, and practices will change to achieve the stated impacts.

For example, setting a goal to “increase workforce participation by 10 percent” is important, but alone may lead governments to narrow, less impactful, individually focused solutions. Instead, setting a systems goal to “better connect workforce development programs to the supportive services people need to take advantage of these programs” directly addresses systemic challenges, and will result in broad population-level benefits.

Map the Policy Ecosystem

In order to truly find the best policy for a city’s unique contexts and challenges, the Compass guides teams to map the policy ecosystem around a prioritized root cause. This includes, first identifying a full range of policy actions. For example, when looking at a root cause of “lack of quality and accessible child care options” this might include wage policies that influence how well childcare workers are paid, zoning policies that control the location and size of childcare facilities, and child care licensing policies which influence the number of registered facilities and childcare providers. Once a full range of potential policies has been identified, the next step is to consider these policies against the city’s current policies, as well as the forces, organizations, people, and contexts that may influence the policy choices.

Assess the Feasibility and Potential Impact of Policy Options

In order to choose the right policy change, the Compass emphasizes the importance for local leaders to consider which policy options are both feasible and maximize the desired systems and population impacts. Feasibility considerations include departmental/staff capacity to implement the policy, political dynamics, budget alignment, partner organization capacity to implement, public support, and having a clear window of opportunity to implement the policy. Considerations around potential impact include whether the policy will reach the intended systems or populations, whether the policy will reduce disparities, how much the policy can scale change, and whether the policy will lead to more equitable changes over time.

Next Steps

Following the conclusion of the Compass pilot, Urban and NLC worked together to update the Compass based on the experiences of the pilot cities and we are continuing to explore ways to provide additional technical assistance and support to other cities who may want to use the Compass process to achieve policy and systems change.

To learn more about the full Policy and Systems Change Compass process, please read the full brief here, or contact the Cities of Opportunity team at

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