Category Archives: UKERC

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: complex systems and systems thinking

This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview and connects to previous posts on complexity. The first 750 words tick along nicely, then there is a picture of a cat hanging in there baby to signal where it can all go wrong.

There are a million-and-one ways to describe systems and systems thinking. These terms are incredibly useful, but also at risk of meaning everything and therefore nothing (compare with planning and consultation).

Let’s explore how the distinction between policy studies and policy analysis can help us clarify the meaning of ‘complex systems’ and ‘systems thinking’ in policymaking.

For example, how might we close a potentially large gap between these two stories?

  1. Systems thinking in policy analysis.
  • Avoid the unintended consequences of too-narrow definitions of problems and processes (systems thinking, not simplistic thinking).
  • If we engage in systems thinking effectively, we can understand systems well enough to control, manage, or influence them.
  1. The study of complex policymaking systems.
  • Policy emerges from complex systems in the absence of: (a) central government control and often (b) policymaker awareness.
  • We need to acknowledge these limitations properly, to accept our limitations, and avoid the mechanistic language of ‘policy levers’ which exaggerate human or government control.

See also: Systems science and systems thinking for public health: a systematic review of the field

Six meanings of complex systems in policy and policymaking

Let’s begin by trying to clarify many meanings of complex system and relate them to systems thinking storylines.

For example, you will encounter three different meanings of complex system in this series alone, and each meaning presents different implications for systems thinking:

  1. A complex policymaking system

Policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from policymaking systems in the absence of central government control. As such, we should rely less on central government driven targets (in favour of local discretion to adapt to environments), encourage trial-and-error learning, and rethink the ways in which we think about government ‘failure’ (see, for example, Hallsworth on ‘system stewardship’, the OECD on ‘Systemic Thinking for Policy Making‘, and this thread)

  • Systems thinking is about learning and adapting to the limits to policymaker control.

  1. Complex policy problems

Dunn (2017:  73) describes the interdependent nature 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” (contrast with Meltzer and Schwartz on creating a ‘boundary’ to make problems seem solveable).

  • Systems thinking is about addressing policy problems holistically.
  1. Complex policy mixes

What we call ‘policy’ is actually a collection of policy instruments. Their overall effect is ‘non-linear’, difficult to predict, and subject to emergent outcomes, rather than cumulative (compare with Lindblom’s hopes for incrementalist change).

This point is crucial to policy analysis: does it involve a rethink of all instruments, or merely add a new instrument to the pile?

  • Systems thinking is about anticipating the disproportionate effect of a new policy instrument.

These three meanings are joined by at least three more (from Munro and Cairney on energy systems):

  1. Socio-technical systems (Geels)

Used to explain the transition from unsustainable to sustainable energy systems.

  • Systems thinking is about identifying the role of new technologies, protected initially in a ‘niche’, and fostered by a supportive ‘social and political environment’.
  1. Socio-ecological systems (Ostrom)

Used to explain how and why policy actors might cooperate to manage finite resources.

  • Systems thinking is about identifying the conditions under which actors develop layers of rules to foster trust and cooperation.
  1. The metaphor of systems

Used by governments – rather loosely – to indicate an awareness of the interconnectedness of things.

  • Systems thinking is about projecting the sense that (a) policy and policymaking is complicated, but (b) governments can still look like they are in control.

Four more meanings of systems thinking

Now, let’s compare these storylines with a small sample of wider conceptions of systems thinking:

  1. The old way of establishing order from chaos

Based on the (now-diminished) faith in science and rational management techniques to control the natural world for human benefit (compare Hughes and Hughes on energy with Checkland on ‘hard’ v ‘soft’ systems approaches, then see What you need as an analyst versus policymaking reality and Radin on the old faith in rationalist governing systems).

  • Systems thinking was about the human ability to turn potential chaos into well-managed systems (such as ‘large technical systems’ to distribute energy)
  1. The new way of accepting complexity but seeking to make an impact

Based on the idea that we can identify ‘leverage points’, or the places that help us ‘intervene in a system’ (see Meadows then compare with Arnold and Wade).

  • Systems thinking is about the human ability to use a small shift in a system to produce profound changes in that system.
  1. A way to rethink cause-and-effect

Based on the idea that current research methods are too narrowly focused on linearity rather than the emergent properties of systems of behaviour (for example, Rutter et al on how to analyse the cumulative effect of public health interventions).

  • Systems thinking is about rethinking the ways in which governments, funders, or professions conduct policy-relevant research on social behaviour.
  1. A way of thinking about ourselves

Embrace the limits to human cognition, and accept that all understandings of complex systems are limited.

  • Systems thinking is about developing the ‘wisdom’ and ‘humility’ to accept our limited knowledge of the world.

hang-in-there-baby

 

How can we clarify systems thinking and use it effectively in policy analysis?

Now, imagine you are in a room of self-styled systems thinkers, and that no-one has yet suggested a brief conversation to establish what you all mean by systems thinking. I reckon you can make a quick visual distinction by seeing who looks optimistic.

I’ll be the morose-looking guy sitting in the corner, waiting to complain about ambiguity, so you would probably be better off sitting next to Luke Craven who still ‘believes in the power of systems thinking’.

If you can imagine some amalgam of these pessimistic/ optimistic positions, perhaps the conversation would go like this:

  1. Reasons to expect some useful collaboration.

Some of these 10 discussions seem to complement each other. For example:

  • We can use 3 and 9 to reject one narrow idea of ‘evidence-based policymaking’, in which the focus is on (a) using experimental methods to establish cause and effect in relation to one policy instrument, without showing (b) the overall impact on policy and outcomes (e.g. compare FNP with more general ‘families’ policy).
  • 1-3 and 10 might be about the need for policy analysts to show humility when seeking to understand and influence complex policy problems, solutions, and policymaking systems.

In other words, you could define systems thinking in relation to the need to rethink the ways in which we understand – and try to address – policy problems. If so, you can stop here and move on to the next post. There is no benefit to completing this post.

  1. Reasons to expect the same old frustrating discussions based on no-one defining terms well enough (collectively) to collaborate effectively (beyond using the same buzzwords).

Although all of these approaches use the language of complex systems and systems thinking, note some profound differences:

Holding on versus letting go.

  • Some are about intervening to take control of systems or, at least, make a disproportionate difference from a small change.
  • Some are about accepting our inability to understand, far less manage, these systems.

Talking about different systems.

  • Some are about managing policymaking systems, and others about social systems (or systems of policy problems), without making a clear connection between both endeavours.

For example, if you use approach 9 to rethink societal cause-and-effect, are you then going to pretend that you can use approach 7 to do something about it? Or, will our group have a difficult discussion about the greater likelihood of 6 (metaphorical policymaking) in the context of 1 (the inability of governments to control the policymaking systems we need to solve the problems raised by 9).

In that context, the reason that I am sitting in the corner, looking so morose, is that too much collective effort goes into (a) restating, over and over and over again, the potential benefits of systems thinking, leaving almost no time for (b) clarifying systems thinking well enough to move on to these profound differences in thinking. Systems thinking has not even helped us solve these problems with systems thinking.

See also:

Why systems thinkers and data scientists should work together to solve social challenges

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Filed under 750 word policy analysis, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, public policy, UKERC

One year research post at Stirling, energy politics and policy in a multi-level UK

Update: the deadline has passed and the interviews will be May 1st.

We are recruiting: Research Assistant in Energy Politics and Public Policy.

The post is one year full time and it begins as soon as possible (hopefully early May). The deadline is Thursday 5th April (3 days!) and I think we will interview on the week beginning 23rd April.

The panel will likely be three people: me (describing the specific project), Dr Emily St Denny (subject expert, likely probing your knowledge of politics/ public policy research), and Professor Richard Oram (Head of Faculty, likely probing your wider transferable skills). It will be less daunting than the usual panel for a lectureship (at least five people, including one of the most senior managers).

I apologise for such a short contract (and short notice). We have tried to do some things to make it more rewarding:

  1. We consolidated our funding, and the University of Stirling contributed extra funding, to make the post full time and include some space for training/ career development.
  2. If you and I are being honest, the biggest part of career development – at least if you seek a permanent lectureship or similar University post – is to add to your list of publications. It is harder to make any guarantees in this regard, but I will work with you (and our wider team) to make sure that your contribution to the project is recognised fully and reflected accurately in our outputs. One or two decent team-authored journal articles seems realistic (albeit published after the end of the contract). I will also deal with ‘reviewer 2’ on our behalf.
  3. ‘Impact’ is also central to academic careers. You should have the chance to, for example, take part in academic-practitioner workshops and develop ‘networking’ skills (I apologise for turning network into a verb).
  4. I’ll do all I can to be flexible, to support your choice about how you work most effectively (perhaps this will be the first conversation with the successful candidate).

The full description of the advert is here and there is some background on our project here.

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The impact of multi-level policymaking on the UK energy system

Cairney et al UKERC

In September, we will begin a one-year UKERC project examining current and future energy policy and multi-level policymaking and its impact on ‘energy systems’. This is no mean feat, since the meaning of policy, policymaking (or the ‘policy process’), and ‘system’ are not clear, and our description of the components parts of an energy system and a complex policymaking system may differ markedly. So, one initial aim is to provide some way to turn a complex field of study into something simple enough to understand and engage with.

We do so by focusing on ‘multi-level policymaking’ – which can encompass concepts such as multi-level governance and intergovernmental relations – to reflect the fact that the responsibility for policies relevant to energy are often Europeanised, devolved, and shared between several levels of government. Brexit will produce a major effect on energy and non-energy policies, and prompt the UK and devolved governments to produce relationships, but we all need more clarity on the dynamics of current arrangements before we can talk sensibly about the future. To that end, we pursue three main work packages:

1. What is the ‘energy policymaking system’ and how does it affect the energy system?

Chaudry et al (2009: iv) define the UK energy system as ‘the set of technologies, physical infrastructure, institutions, policies and practices located in and associated with the UK which enable energy services to be delivered to UK consumers’. UK policymaking can have a profound impact, and constitutional changes might produce policy change, but their impacts require careful attention. So, we ‘map’ the policy process and the effect of policy change on energy supply and demand. Mapping sounds fairly straightforward but contains a series of tasks whose level of difficulty rises each time:

  1. Identify which level or type of government is responsible – ‘on paper’ and in practice – for the use of each relevant policy instrument.
  2. Identify how these actors interact to produce what we call ‘policy’, which can range from statements of intent to final outcomes.
  3. Identify an energy policy process containing many actors at many levels, the rules they follow, the networks they form, the ‘ideas’ that dominate discussion, and the conditions and events (often outside policymaker control) which constrain and facilitate action. By this stage, we need to draw on particular policy theories to identify key venues, such as subsystems, and specific collections of actors, such as advocacy coalitions, to produce a useful model of activity.

2. Who is responsible for action to reduce energy demand?

Energy demand is more challenging to policymakers than energy supply because the demand side involves millions of actors who, in the context of household energy use, also constitute the electorate. There are political tensions in making policies to reduce energy demand and carbon where this involves cost and inconvenience for private actors who do not necessarily value the societal returns achieved, and the political dynamics often differ from policy to regulate industrial demand. There are tensions around public perceptions of whose responsibility it is to take action – including local, devolved, national, or international government agencies – and governments look like they are trying to shift responsibility to each other or individuals and firms.

So, there is no end of ways in which energy demand could be regulated or influenced – including energy labelling and product/building standards, emissions reduction measures, promotion of efficient generation, and buildings performance measures – but it is an area of policy which is notoriously diffuse and lacking in co-ordination. So, for the large part, we consider if Brexit provides a ‘window of opportunity’ to change policy and policymaking by, for example, clarifying responsibilities and simplifying relationships.

3: Does Brexit affect UK and devolved policy on energy supply?

It is difficult for single governments to coordinate an overall energy mix to secure supply from many sources, and multi-level policymaking adds a further dimension to planning and cooperation. Yet, the effect of constitutional changes is highly uneven. For example, devolution has allowed Scotland to go its own way on renewable energy, nuclear power and fracking, but Brexit’s impact ranges from high to low. It presents new and sometimes salient challenges for cooperation to supply renewable energy but, while fracking and nuclear are often the most politically salient issues, Brexit may have relatively little impact on policymaking within the UK.

We explore the possibility that renewables policy may be most impacted by Brexit, while nuclear and fracking are examples in which Brexit may have a minimal direct impact on policy. Overall, the big debates are about the future energy mix, and how local, devolved, and UK governments balance the local environmental impacts of, and likely political opposition to, energy development against the economic and energy supply benefits.

For more details, see our 4-page summary

Powerpoint for 13.7.17

Cairney et al UKERC presentation 23.10.17

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Filed under Fracking, public policy, UKERC