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.