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. I updated it (22.6.20) to add category 11 then again (30.9.20) when I realised that the former category 11 was a lot like 6.
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?
- 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.
- 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:
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.
- 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.
- 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):
- 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’.
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.
- Performing the metaphor of systems
Governments often use the language of complex systems – rather loosely – to indicate an awareness of the interconnectedness of things. They often perform systems thinking to give the impression that they are thinking and acting differently, but without backing up their words with tangible changes to policy instruments.
- 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:
- 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)
- 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.
- 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, and Greenhalgh on responding more effectively to pandemics).
- Systems thinking is about rethinking the ways in which governments, funders, or professions conduct policy-relevant research on social behaviour.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
Why systems thinkers and data scientists should work together to solve social challenges