Together stronger: boundary work within an Australian systems based prevention initiative

Veronique Roussy, Therese Riley, Charles Livingstone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Complexity and systems science are increasingly used to devise interventions to address health and social problems. Boundaries are important in systems thinking, as they bring attention to the power dynamics that guide decision-making around the framing of a situation, and how it is subsequently tackled. Using complexity theory as an analytical frame, this qualitative exploratory study examined boundary interactions between local government and community health organizations during the
operationalization of a systems-based initiative to prevent obesity and chronic diseases (Healthy Together Communities—HTCs) in Victoria, Australia. Across two HTC sites, data was generated through semi-structured interviews with 20 key informants, in mid-2015. Template analysis based on properties of complex systems was applied to the data. The dynamics of boundary work are explored using three case illustrations: alignment, boundary spanning and boundary permeability. Alignment
was both a process and an outcome of boundary work, and occurred at strategic, operational and individual levels. Boundary spanning was an important mechanism to develop a unified collaborative approach, and ensure that mainstream initiatives reached disadvantaged groups. Finally, some boundaries exhibited different levels of permeability for local government and community health organizations. This influenced how each organization could contribute to HTC interventions in unique,
yet complementary ways. The study of boundary work offers potential for understanding the mechanisms that contribute to the nonlinear behaviour of complex systems. The complementarity of partnering organizations, and boundary dynamics should be considered when designing and operationalizing multilevel, complex systems-informed prevention initiatives.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalHealth Promotion International
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 30 Jun 2019


  • prevention
  • systems
  • community health promotion
  • implementation
  • intersectoral partnerships

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