Complex policymaking systems: is order good and disorder bad?

Paul Cairney: The language of complexity allows us to pose a fundamental question about the way in which politics and policymaking works: how can we explain and evaluate the order and stability that appears to exist despite multi-level complexity? Imagine several layers of complex systems – the brains of individuals; the collection of people that make up policymaking systems; the wider social system – operating within constantly changing environments. In each case, the behaviour of each system often appears to be unstable and unpredictable: thoughts emerge from the brain, policy emerges from various parts of government, and behaviour emerges from society in ways that we struggle to understand and often seem impossible to predict.

Yet, despite this constant potential for instability and change, people often behave in quite predictable ways and produce regular patterns of behaviour when they interact. They produce simple rules of thumb to deal with complexity. They deal with an almost infinite amount of information, and ways in which to understand it, by relying on cognitive short cuts, to decide what information to process and how. These short cuts can include individual habits and social norms, many of which are difficult to change when they become established. People develop beliefs and groups of people often develop shared ways of thinking (which can involve the power to establish dominant ways of thinking and acting, to benefit some and often marginalise others). Governments operate in a comparable way, breaking their policy responsibilities into a series of departments and units, each of which has some potential to develop its own ‘standard operating procedures’, to decide where to seek information and how to process it to make decisions.

In that context, the study of policymaking is about identifying those rules, how stable they are, and how they might change. It is about identifying ‘institutions’, as the rules, norms, practices and relationships that help produce regular patterns, or a non-trivial degree, of individual and collective behaviour. Rules can be formal and widely understood, such as when enshrined in law or a constitution, or informal and only understood in particular organisations (Ostrom et al, 2014). Institutions at one level (e.g. constitutional) can also shape activity at another (e.g. legislation or regulation), establish the types of venue where policy decisions are made, and the rules that allow particular types of actors or ideas to enter the policy process (Cairney and Heikkila, 2014). Institutional change can be endogenous, such as when people within organisations understand problems differently in light of new information. It can be exogenous when, for example, a major event has an impact on the organisation (from a demographic change that shifts the remit of the organisation, to a change of government with a different approach). Or, it can be a mixture of both, when different organisations, with their own rules, interact to produce new forms of behaviour. This potential for long periods of stability punctuated by instability is ever present in complex policymaking systems (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993; 2009).

When we identify those rules, we can also consider how appropriate they are: if there is a benefit to stability (which may allow people to plan and specialise) or instability (when people are flexible and able to adapt to constantly changing circumstances); if institutions can produce cross-cutting aims and rules, or if they struggle to interact with each other in meaningful or productive ways. We might examine how people should behave in such systems, when they are faced with the need to balance a sense of expected order (such as in a Westminster system with allegedly concentrated levels of power in the executive and clear lines of accountability) with pragmatism (when policymakers know that they can only control behaviour and outcomes to a limited extent). We might also examine how policymaking systems interact with individuals and societies: does policy challenge regular patterns of thought or behaviour in society or simply reinforce social norms and inequalities?

Robert Geyer: through much of Western history (the 20th century in particular) order has been equated with being good and disorder bad. What complexity demonstrates is that the complex systems that we are, inhabit and surround us are always a mix of order and disorder. Flux, change, adaptation and adjustment are constant. Hence, order and disorder can never simply be good and bad. Complexity recognises this. However due to its recognition of uncertainty and emergent properties in complex systems, it cannot identify an optimum point of action/existence/justice. The best it can do is provide us with general boundaries of action that may lead to better, more positive outcomes. Good and bad depend on the mix!’

Paul discusses some of these themes in the following blog posts …

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism

Complexity Theory and Policymaking

Complexity Theory in Thought and Practice

.. and in some articles

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?

Cairney, P. (2012) ‘Complexity Theory in Political Science and Public Policy’, Political Studies Review, 10, 346-58 email Paul for a copy)

See also Robert Geyer on Complexity and the Stacey Diagram –

Geyer, R. (2012) ‘Can Complexity Move UK Policy beyond ‘Evidence-Based Policy Making’ and the ‘Audit Culture’? Applying a ‘Complexity Cascade’ to Education and Health Policy’, Political Studies, 60, 1, 20-43

Geyer, R. and Rihani, S. (2010) Complexity and Public Policy (London: Routledge)

Robert and Paul are also in the process of completing an edited Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy for Edward Elgar.


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One response to “Complex policymaking systems: is order good and disorder bad?

  1. Pingback: Best of the Rest – week 1 | Open Policy Making

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