What are the implications of complexity for policymaking and administration?

This post – for a presentation to the EIPA EPSA workshop Working with complexity – consolidates several posts on ‘complexity’, including:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: complex systems and systems thinking

The politics of policy design

My role was to set the scenes and raise problems. Think of most of these problems as political policymaking dilemmas that produce the need to engage with uncertainty, ambiguity, and trade-offs, not technical problems amenable to simple fixes.

What does complexity mean in relation to policymaking and administration?

It takes time to understand what people mean whey they describe complexity, but this process is essential. Otherwise, we will be talking at cross-purposes, or in vague platitudes, without demonstrating why the language of complexity matters to policymaking.

For example, some people use the common term ‘complex’ when describing something very complicated.

Some refer to ‘complexity theory’ to describe the properties of ‘complex systems’, including:

  1. Interdependence.
  2. Positive and negative feedback.
  3. Sensitivity to initial conditions.
  4. Strange attractors.
  5. Emergence.

This language comes with the exhortation to see the world differently: as less amenable to understanding (with traditional research techniques) or to solutions (with traditional policy processes).

For some, it describes implications for policy. For others, the policy process itself.

Problem 1 – The tension between a focus on requirement versus reality when we seek concrete meaning

A focus on policy analysis/ design usually begins with the complexity of problems:

Subjectively experienced problems – crime, poverty, unemployment, inflation, energy, pollution, health, security – cannot be decomposed into independent subsets without running the risk of producing an approximately right solution to the wrong problem. A key characteristic of systems of problems is that the whole is greater – that is, qualitatively different – than the simple sum of its parts (Dunn, 2017:  73; compare with ‘wicked’ problems)

Then, analysts identify a list of policymaking requirements to deal with the problem:  

  • If policy problems are complex,
  • they spill over traditional government boundaries,
  • so we require concerted efforts towards integration, joining up, whole of government approaches.

A focus on policymaking complexity usually suggests that such requirements will not be met. Holistic government is a pipedream or ideal-type to compare with what happens.

Problem 2 – The lack of central control and a lack of coordinative capacity; the system is not so amenable

This focus on complex policymaking systems provides a list of cautionary tales, such as:

  • A policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
  • Expect policy interventions to not have the desired effect.

It also comes with a call to do things differently:

  • Policymaking is too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies. 
  • Or, people have too much faith in the coordinative capacity of organisations working together.
  • Policymaking systems change quickly, so adapt quickly and do not rely on a single policy strategy.

Problem 3 – Let go or hold on?

One solution to this problem is to give up on the idea of central coordination: let go, in favour of decentralised responses.

However, this general response leaves unresolved questions about how to meet expectations for elected government and holding specific organisations to account for their actions. If everyone is responsible, is no-one responsible?

E.g. for the UK context, see The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

Problem 4 – What is systems thinking?

These problems lead people to suggest that ‘systems thinking’ is the solution. Yet, they are describing very different things, including:

  1. High control:

See policy problems differently.

Engage in holistic policymaking.

Turn chaos into order.

Find the right levers to make a disproportionate impact.

  • Low control.

Develop the humility to accept your limits.

Adapt to the limits of government control

Anticipate emergence (complex policy mixes).

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