Daily Archives: October 14, 2013

Och Aye or Och No: we don’t know

Lesley Riddoch’s piece in the Scotsman argues that the Scottish Independence campaign, so far, has been a bit crap. No one (bar the single minded numpty) is quite sure what they want and they need better information. They won’t get that if Yes/ No campaigns just invite people to vote yes or no, or if they just get ‘one-sided “propaganda”’. They ‘need an authentic choice’. That choice needs to come via something like a ‘pre-referendum Constitutional Convention’ which ‘would let voters compare all propositions before taking the plunge’:

It’s naïve perhaps to think political parties might sink bitter differences for the sake of democracy. But as things stand, this referendum may be remembered more for the chronic indecision of the Scottish people than any actual result.

For me, the naïve idea is that we can construct a commission to set out the facts in an objective way. I reckon that it comes from a romantic view of the Nordics, where many countries have this reputation for consensus-building. The problem with this idea is that consensus-seeking is also debate-stifling. It does not sit well with the UK tradition of open, often adversarial, argument in which two groups present opposing arguments and ask people to choose between them. The advantage of this system is that it is entertaining and relatively likely to capture the public imagination. The more theatrical, the better. If anything, the debate has received too much attention – it has dominated Scottish debate for ages – at the expense of more important issues. This seems, to me, to be more useful than hanging our hats on a commission – which, if it is populated by thinky-folk, could only produce an honest report if it says: “how the hell do we know what will happen?”.


Filed under Scottish politics, Social change, UK politics and policy

If Michael Gove accepted Cummings’ advice, would he bother getting out of bed?

Most of the coverage of Dominic Cummings recent document focused on the controversial elements, such his discussion of the link between genes and educational attainment. So, his discussion of complexity has been discussed far less. Yet, there are some interesting statements here, starting with the very first paragraph:

Although we understand some systems well enough to make precise or statistical predictions, most interesting systems – whether physical, mental, cultural, or virtual – are complex, nonlinear, and have properties that emerge from feedback between many interactions. Exhaustive searches of all possibilities are impossible. Unfathomable and unintended consequences dominate. Problems cascade. Complex systems are hard to understand, predict and control.

He then goes on to say that people are ill equipped to understand and control complex political systems: “We do not have a problem with ‘too much cynicism’ – we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much”. The solution, according to his paper, is a better education in ways to better understand complex systems – which includes the immersion in interdisciplinary studies, including mathematics, quantitative methods, computation, biology, engineering, economics and the scientific method.

One omission is the need to study complex policymaking systems (although I admit that it might be there somewhere in the 237 pages). The interesting contrast which we can take from his discussion is that he is essentially (a) giving advice about the unpredictability of policymaking systems, to (b) a policymaker expected to be at the centre of that system. Most applications of complexity theory to policymaking studies question the ability of the ‘centre’ to control policy outcomes. The argument ties in neatly with the more established policy literature which identifies huge government and points out that policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of the things for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number of issues and, as a consequence, ignore virtually all of the things taking place in their departments and the wider world. In other words, if Gove follows Cummings to become a complexity theorist, we can expect him to wonder if he can make much of an impact on his domain. In this sense, complexity theory presents a marked contrast to the ‘Westminster model’ which suggests that power is concentrated in the heart of government.

See also:

Complexity Theory and Policymaking

What is ‘Evolution’? What is ‘Complexity’? [and How does it inform the study of policymaking?]

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Filed under agenda setting, public policy, UK politics and policy