Part 1: An Introduction to the Role of Mapping in Social Service Innovation

Part 1: An Introduction to the Role of Mapping in Social Service Innovation

MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) uses a six-step problem-solving approach that programs can use to engage all stakeholders democratically in efforts to improve services or systems. Mapping is used in multiple steps of that approach to help institutions figure out how program participants are experiencing their services or process and how they might support program participants better in achieving desired outcomes.[1] CABS’s mapping involves the visual representation of systems’ processes, step by step, along with different stakeholders’ experiences within them.

This post describes why mapping is useful to promote change. To learn more about how the CABS Approach uses mapping tools, see here.

Mapping provides a constructive framework for problem-solving without blame. The CABS Approach does not solve problems by trying to change people. Instead, we use mapping to display how systems intend to work and then to reveal how people interact with and experience those systems. Doing so helps identify how programs might change processes and interactions to improve people’s experiences and outcomes.

Mapping invites people to consider multiple perspectives. MDRC’s decades of experience working with government agencies and social programs equip us to sketch out processes from both the staff and participant perspectives. By mapping interactions among people in a program and including diverse perspectives in our maps, we acknowledge and visually represent their different experiences. This representation clarifies the roles, small and large, that different parties play in successful outcomes. Maps can highlight assumptions different players might hold, and thus provide a starting point to interrogate assumptions and build empathy with different perspectives.    

Mapping links individual experiences to the improvement of systems. Visually representing how a system works and how an individual experiences it can illustrate how a system’s design could contribute to inequitable access to services, inequitable outcomes, or undesirable experiences for participants. CABS’s approach to mapping not only clarifies where there is a discrepancy between what a program intends and what actually happens, but also identifies points where it makes sense to introduce changes. Often, our maps include evidence-based recommendations from behavioral science about interventions to address barriers parties are facing in systems, with the aim of improving their outcomes.


[1] Rekha Balu, Nadine Dechausay, and Caitlin Anzelone, “An Organizational Approach to Applying Behavioral Insights to Policy: Center for Applied Behavioral Science at MDRC,” Chapter 11 in Kai Ruggeri (ed.), Behavioral Insights for Public Policy: Concepts and Cases (New York: Routledge, 2018).

Creating a Process Map graphic