Tag Archives: complexity theory

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 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1478-9302.2012.00270.x/abstract(or email Paul for a copy)

See also Robert Geyer on Complexity and the Stacey Diagram – http://vimeo.com/25979052

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 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9248.2011.00903.x/abstract

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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Four obstacles to evidence based policymaking (EBPM)

  1. Even if ‘the evidence’ exists, it doesn’t tell you what to do.
  • Sometimes there is clear evidence of a problem but not its solution.
  • The evidence may tell us that something is effective, but not if it is appropriate.
  • Scientists may exaggerate scientific consensus when they become advocates.
  • Scientists often disagree about what they are doing, how they should do it, and how science should contribute to policy.
  • These problems are exacerbated when: problems cross-cut traditional policy areas and disciplinary boundaries, the evidence base is patchy, and, the evidence comes from abroad, in an unfamiliar or unsystematic way.
  1. The demand for evidence does not match the supply.
  • Governments may fund research to seek a ‘magic bullet’ or killer piece of information to remove the need for political choice.
  • Research studies often focus on the narrow, measurable aspects of interventions but policymakers consider complex problems.
  • Policymakers pay attention to, or understand, the evidence in different ways than specialist scientists.
  • Their demand for information may be unpredictable.
  • They seek many sources of information – scientific, practical, opinion.
  • They often have to make decisions quickly and despite uncertainty.
  • They use research selectively: to bolster their case, legitimise their actions, and show that they are acting.
  • People providing evidence want an instant impact, but the effect may be more subtle, taking years or decades to filter through.
  1. People make choices in a complex policymaking system in which the role of evidence is often unclear.
  • The policy process contains many policymakers and it takes time to understand how the system works.
  • Scientists are competing with a wide range of actors (more knowledgeable of the policy process) to secure a policymaker audience and present evidence in a particular way.
  • Support for evidence-based solutions varies according to which department or unit takes the lead and how it understand the problem.
  • Bureaucracies and public bodies have operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others.
  • Well-established beliefs provide the context for a consideration of new evidence.
  • Attention to evidence may lurch unpredictably following shifts in the policy environment.
  1. Evidence-based policymaking is not the same as good policymaking.
  • Minimising the evidence-policy gap means centralising power in the hands of a small number of policymakers and ensuring that scientific evidence is the sole source of knowledge for policymakers.
  • Governments may legitimately pursue alternative forms of ‘good’ policymaking based on consulting widely and generating a degree of societal, practitioner and user consensus.

Armed with this knowledge, as scientists we can choose how to adapt to those circumstances by, for example: identifying where the action takes place; learning about the properties of policymaking systems, the rules of the game, and how to frame evidence to fit policy agendas; forming coalitions with other influential actors; and, engaging in the policy process long enough to exploit windows of opportunity.

See also:

This post is one of many on EBPM. The full list is here: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?

A ‘decisive shift to prevention’: how do we turn an idea into evidence based policy?

For a whole bunch of posts on the policy theory discussed in the originally more detailed argument see https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it?

‘Complex government’ relates to many factors:

  • the size and multi-level nature of government
  • the proliferation of rules, regulations and public bodies
  • a crowded arena with blurry boundaries between policymakers and the actors who influence them; and
  • general uncertainty when people interact in unpredictable ways within a changeable policy environment.

Complex government is difficult to understand, control, influence and hold to account.

This brief article considers it from various perspectives: scholars trying to conceptualise it; policymakers trying to control or adapt to it; and, scientists, interest groups and individuals trying to influence it.

Cairney Complex Government 14.5.14 (submitted to a special issue – ‘Complex Government’ – in Public Money and Management)

See also: Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Context, Events, Structural and Socioeconomic Factors

(podcast download)

We need a way to describe the things that policymakers take into account when they make decisions. We also need a way to categorise these things in order of importance, from factors that simply catch their eye, to factors that seem to be out of their control and/ or force them into making particular choices.

For example, ‘policy context’ or ‘structural factors’ may be used to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s ‘environment’ is in her control. It can refer to the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass social attitudes and behaviour.

box 6.1 structural

Or, we might refer to‘events’, which can be: routine, such as the elections, or unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, major scientific breakthroughs and technological change (see Weible).

Or, we might refer to policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs (Rose, 1990). The first thing that a new government does is accept responsibility for the decisions made in its name in the past. New policymakers also realise that they are engaging in governing organisations which often have well-established rules, to which they either have to adapt or expend energy to challenge.

Structure and agency

Our challenge is to find a way to incorporate these factors into a convincing account of policymaking. The policy sciences face the same problem as the social sciences: how to conceptualise the relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. Or, how much do policymakers shape, and how much of their behaviour is shaped by, their policy environment?

The term ‘structure’ refers vaguely to a set of parts put together to form a whole. In social science, we attribute two key properties to structures: they are relatively fixed and difficult but not impossible to break down; and, they influence the decisions that actors (‘agents’) make. For example, it is common to describe the structure of the economy, rules within institutions, government, and even some ideas.

From this starting point, we can identify agency-heavy and structural-heavy explanations. For the latter, one common solution is to focus on how actors interpret and respond to context and events. If so, we might consider if an event is only significant if actors within political systems pay attention to it.

This approach may contrast with socioeconomic-driven accounts which suggest that demographic, economic and other factors determine: which issues reach the policymaking agenda; which solutions seem feasible; the actors that policymakers try most to please; and, the likely success of any action.

For example, some studies from the 1960s examined the extent to which variations in policies across US states were explained by the socio-economic composition of each state. Similarly, Hofferbert’s (1974) ‘funnel of causality’ gives the impression that historic-geographic conditions contribute to the socio-economic composition of a region, which contributes to mass political behavior which determines the fortunes of parties – and all three combine with government institutions to influence elite behaviour.

Perhaps the most recent exposition of a structure-heavy account is summed up in the phrase ‘globalisation’ which describes the diminished ability of governments to control their own economic and monetary policies. Governments appear to be forced to ‘race to the bottom’; to compete economically, react to widespread shifts and crises in international financial conditions and change to attract business from multi-national corporations (often by reducing corporation taxes and labour regulations).

Structural versus comprehensive rationality based explanations?

This discussion prompts us to consider a different perspective to comprehensively rational decision making, or the idea that the policy process begins with the decision by a policymaker to identify a problem to solve. Instead, we may envisage a world in which policies are already in place and the ability of policymakers to replace them are limited. This decision-making process takes place within the context of existing government policy and a huge infrastructure devoted to carrying it out. Further, policymakers often define problems after events have taken place; those events may be out of the control of policymakers and often appear to give them very little choice about how, if it is possible, to solve them.

One way to describe this process is to suggest that policymakers represent one small part of a large complex system. Complexity theory suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a political system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behaviour that cannot be broken down into the actions of its constituent parts. This idea of a system captures the difficulty of policymaking and serves as a corrective to accounts that focus too much on the importance of individual policymakers and which exaggerate their ability to single-handedly change policy.

A structure-agency mix

Of course, we do not want to go too far; to suggest that people don’t matter. So, a sensible approach is to think in terms of a structure–agency mix:

  • An ageing population may give governments little choice but to plan for the consequences, but they can do so in a variety of ways.
  • Technology-driven healthcare is not irresistible, particularly if expenditure is limited and cost-effective public health policies are available.
  • Coastal conditions may force us to build protective barriers, but policymakers have shown that they can ignore the issue for some time, until the environmental conditions cause a human crisis.
  • The appearance of globalisation, crises and economically-driven policies may be convenient for policymakers attempting to introduce unpopular policies or avoid responsibility for poor results. Yet, the ‘race to the bottom’ has also been resisted by many governments, often with reference to competing structural factors such as historical legacies and national values.

A final sensible solution is to not worry too much about what we call the solution. In my day, there was a lot of humming and hawing about Gidden’s ‘two sides of the same coin’ description of actors and structures, but I don’t remember anything being resolved.

See also: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/1000-words/


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?

Paul Cairney (2015) ‘How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?’ Teaching Public Administration, 33, 1, 22-39 PDF

Policymakers and academics often hold different assumptions about the policymaking world based on their different experiences. Academics may enjoy enough distance from the policy process to develop a breadth of knowledge and produce generalisable conclusions across governments, while policymakers/ practitioners such as civil servants may develop in-depth expertise when developing policy for a number of years. In turn, both may learn from each other about how to understand the policymaking world.

Academic-practitioner seminars and short training courses can help further that aim. Yet, there is a major barrier to such conversations: academics and practitioners may have their own language to understand policymaking, and a meaningful conversation may require considerable translation.

To examine these issues, this article relates my attempts, in a series of steps, to turn abstract policy theory into something useful for practitioners.

The first step is to identify a potential disconnect between the starting points for academic-practitioner discussions and policy theories. In the former, we may still use concepts developed to aid policymaking – such as the policy cycle, the ideal of ‘comprehensive rationality’ and the ‘top-down approach’ to implementation – because they aid discussion. In the latter, we have generally moved on from these descriptions of the world, to reflect the policy process’ complexity and our need for new theories to help explain it.

The second is to consider how to make those more realistic, but specialist, scientific concepts as meaningful to practitioners. The article considers the extent to which modern theories can provide straightforward insights to policy practitioners by condensing and articulating its ‘key tenets’.

The third is to consider how insights from those tenets, based largely on what governments do, can be used to recommend what they should do. The article contrasts how they might be used by a ‘top down minded’ government with how they might be used by scholars to recommend action. It focuses in particular on ‘complexity theory’ as an approach which combines policy theory with practical recommendations.

A final step is to consider how we can engage with policymakers to discuss those insights. The article draws on my experience of teaching civil servants in policy training seminars, using these theories to identify complex policymaking systems and encourage ‘reflexivity’ about how to adapt to, and operate within, them.

The article performs a dual role: as a way to explain the policy process in a straightforward way, and as a resource for civil servants engaged in policy training seminars.

Green version

See also: Is Evidence-Based Policymaking the same as good policymaking?

and/ or

Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

Evidence Based Policy Making: If You Want to Inject More Science into Policymaking You Need to Know the Science of Policymaking

‘Evidence-based policy making’ (EBPM) is a vague, aspirational term, rather than a good description of the policy process. It can be interpreted in very different ways. At one extreme is the naïve view that there can and should be a direct and unproblematic link between ‘the evidence’ and policy decisions and outcomes. At the other is the policy-based-evidence view that politics is so corrupt that no decision is based on an appeal to scientific evidence, or so messy that the evidence gets lost somewhere in the political process. A more useful approach is to argue that EBPM is an ideal-type to compare with the real world, in much the same way as we describe a ‘comprehensively rational’ policymaker.  Then, we can draw on the policy literature which provides a wide range of theories to help situate the role of evidence within a complex policymaking system. Evidence may be important but, to identify and gauge its role, we must understand how it fits into the bigger picture in which ‘boundedly rational’ policymakers make choices based on limited information and ambiguity. This takes place in the context of a policy environment which influences how they act and how much control they have over the final outcomes. Images of highly centralised and ‘rational’ policymaking by a small number of actors generally give way to pictures of less predictable or manageable multi-level governance involving many actors.  The implication, particularly in Westminster systems, is that we should change how we see the role of evidence: from focusing on its use by policymakers at the ‘top’, or at a notional point of decision, towards explaining how it is used throughout the political system as a whole.


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

The Gerry Adams Novelty Mugs on Twitter Test

How far ahead can we make accurate and detailed political predictions? I propose the Gerry Adams Novelty Mugs on Twitter Test. We ask: how many years ago could you have predicted that Gerry Adams would be tweeting about novelty mugs?


gerry adams mugs

We could probably have made that prediction, say, a year ago based on his whimsical twitter style. However, think about the difficulties in going further back, say 5-10 years, to consider the role of the rise of social media and its confluence with Adams’ new position in the political landscape. Then, consider that Adams’ case is relatively simple, compared to the interaction between a wide range of actors, institutions, socioeconomic conditions and events which produce political changes. In short, the test is there to remind us to be wary of people claiming to have the political equivalent of clairvoyance.

See also:

Predicting the future

McBusted has been to the Year 3000 and it predicts a higher income tax in Scotland relative to the rest of the UK

In 50 years, we won’t care about North Sea Oil because we’ll be on solar jet packs


Filed under Folksy wisdom, public policy, Social change

What Works (in a complex policymaking system)?

The Scottish Government and ESRC held an event yesterday to publicise their proposed new What Works centre. Its role is ‘is to deepen the impact of the emergent Scottish approach to public service delivery and reform, by evaluating evidence in delivery of that approach’. As you might expect from a series of presentations (9 in total), the speakers presented ideas which had the potential to vary in meaning and emphasis. Consequently, there seemed to be some potential tensions between things such as:

  1. A government trying to ‘scale up’ from the experience of successful pilots, and a government devolving responsibility to local bodies (such as local authorities), giving them the space to choose how to meet broad Scottish Government aims – unless ‘scaling up’ simply means encouraging ‘best’ or ‘good’ practice. Scaling up may have a different meaning in different academic disciplines and different policy areas. For example, healthcare and public health may be associated more with larger and more uniform policies than ‘community’ based projects.
  2. A focus on learning from successful projects, quite quickly, when the Scottish Government and ESRC are looking for examples of policies that produce good outcomes after, 10, 20 or more years. The former may involve drawing relatively quick conclusions about the success of projects, based on a mixture of their reputations and evidence limited to a small number of years. This is a general feature of ‘lesson-drawing’ or ‘transfer’ from one government to another – borrowers are often very quick to judge the success of lenders, based on some rough and ready indicators.

What struck me in particular was Harry Burns’ (Chief Medical Officer, Scottish Government) emphasis on the importance of complexity, complex systems and ‘complex systems thinking’. As I have found recently, when co-editing a book on complexity and public policy, complexity is a remarkably vague term which can mean very different things to different people. To many, it means something akin to ‘complicated’. To others, to identify a complex system is to identify a very specific set of arguments and properties, including:

  1. A complex system is greater than the sum of its parts; those parts are interdependent – elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.
  2. Some attempts to influence complex systems are dampened (negative feedback) while others are amplified (positive feedback). Small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects.
  3. Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions that produce a long-term momentum or ‘path dependence’.
  4. They exhibit ‘emergence’, or behaviour that results from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction.
  5. They may contain ‘strange attractors’ or demonstrate extended regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change.

Similarly, the meaning of ‘systems thinking’ is often unclear or unhelpful when we seek to go beyond the instantly intuitive notion of thinking about the broader context of policymaking. Here are some further examples of unresolved issues regarding complexity and public policy:

  • Some people describe the natural and social world (the latter is often the thing that policymakers want, but struggle, to influence) as complex, but neglect to consider the idea that policymaking systems are complex systems. The particular relevance to What Works is that it would be a mistake to recognise the complicated set of problems to be solved by policies, but ignore the complicated set of processes to which the policies themselves are subject. This is often a key feature of wider debates on ‘evidence based policymaking’.
  • One tenet of complexity theory is that law-like behaviour is difficult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one time or place may not have the same effect in another. This places important limits on the idea of ‘scaling up’ from the experience of one study. If scaling-up means encouraging good practice, adapted to local experience, all well and good. If it means ‘rolling out’ a successful policy to many areas, it may be problematic.
  • One solution, of sorts, to such problems, is to accept that we don’t know the individual effects of individual policy instruments. Rather, we introduce a wide range of policy instruments and hope that they interact to produce a positive overall outcome. This sort of approach can be found in areas such as tobacco control (in which there may be six main types of policy, each with several elements), but may be less common or applicable in other policy areas. The complication is that it is difficult to say ‘what works’ if we mean ‘what particular policy instruments work?’.
  • ‘Systems thinking’ may prompt us deal with uncertainty and change by encouraging trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, and be adopted, amended or rejected, relatively quickly. This encourages us to think about the potentially very limited role of a central government. A lot of the literature uses complexity theory to present almost the opposite idea to the ‘Westminster model’ in which power rests, and should rest, in the hands of a small number of elected policymakers, accountable to the public via Parliament.  Many advocate relying less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
  • A lot of the literature uses complexity theory to “challenge particular brands of ‘positivism’ which present a ‘vision of society based on order, laws and progress’ (Geyer and Rihani, 2010, p. 5); to suggest that ‘quantitative and reductionist methodologies’ may be useful to explain topics such as elections with ‘rules and orderly structures’, but not issues that contain unpredictable political events, significant levels of uncertainty and ambiguity (Geyer and Rihani, 2010, pp. 74–5) or factors outside the control of policy makers (Room, 2011)” (excerpt from Cairney 2012 PSR Complexity Theory). This raises the issue of methods and their underlying philosophy. At the event, he general response to a question on methods was the usual idea that we can mix them. Yet, the underlying ideas behind particular approaches may be complementary and others contradictory (see here and here Cairney 2013 PSJ Standing on the shoulder of giants for a wider discussion). A mix of methods is not a solution in itself.

A positive interpretation of these problems is that all governments face them, and some may respond better than others. This is certainly the reputation that the Scottish Government has developed, and this reputation is articulated in the What Works call:

  • The Scottish Government is unusually positioned to respond favourably because successive Scottish Governments have appeared to be much more open to this sort of advice (or, at least, they have engaged in behaviour consistent with it).
  • In particular, they have relied more on ‘partnership working’ and less on stringent performance management regimes linked to targets and punitive measures for not meeting them.
  • The SNP Government in particular (from 2007) signalled a willingness to devolve more responsibility to local authorities, reduce the proportion of ‘ring fenced’ budgets  and develop less-top-down ‘single outcome agreements’ (Remember Alex Salmond in 2007: ‘The days of top-down diktats are over’).
  • This difference of attitude might reflect cultural differences in Scotland’s political system or simply the different policymaking environment in which Scottish Governments operate.  In particular, Scotland is smaller and its policymakers have fewer responsibilities; both factors may allow them to develop quite meaningful horizontal and vertical relationships and rely less on more impersonal and inflexible policy measures.

Related posts:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: ‘Evidence Based Policymaking’

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

Related paper: Paul Cairney 13.1.14 How Can Policy Theory Inform Policymaking

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy, Uncategorized

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

complexity za

(podcast download)

There is an unnecessary tendency for proponents of complexity theory to say that it is radically new; a scientific revolution; that it will change the way we think about, and study, the natural and social world. It suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behaviour that cannot be broken down merely into the actions of its constituent parts. The metaphor of a microscope or telescope, in which we zoom in to analyse individual components or zoom out to see the system as a whole, sums up this alleged shift of approach.

Complexity theory has been applied to a wide range of activity, from the swarming behaviour of bees, the weather and the function of the brain, to social and political systems.  The argument is that all such systems have common properties, including:

  1. A complex system is greater than the sum of its parts; those parts are interdependent – elements interact with each other, share information and combine to produce systemic behaviour.
  2. Some attempts to influence complex systems are dampened (negative feedback) while others are amplified (positive feedback). Small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects.
  3. Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions that produce a long-term momentum or ‘path dependence’.
  4. They exhibit ‘emergence’, or behaviour that results from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction.
  5. They may contain ‘strange attractors’ or demonstrate extended regularities of behaviour which may be interrupted by short bursts of change.

As you might expect from a theory of many things, the language is vague and needs some interpretation in each field. In the policymaking field, the identification of a complex system is often used to make the following suggestions:

  • Law-like behaviour is difficult to identify – so a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another.
  • Policymaking systems are difficult to control; policy makers should not be surprised when their policy interventions do not have the desired effect.
  • Policy makers in the UK have been too driven by the idea of order, maintaining rigid hierarchies and producing top-down, centrally driven policy strategies.  An attachment to performance indicators, to monitor and control local actors, may simply result in policy failure and demoralised policymakers.
  • Policymaking systems or their environments change quickly. Therefore, organisations must adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy.

On this basis, there is a tendency in the literature to encourage the delegation of decision-making to local actors:

  1. Rely less on central government driven targets, in favour of giving local organisations more freedom to learn from their experience and adapt to their rapidly-changing environment.
  2. To deal with uncertainty and change, encourage trial-and-error projects, or pilots, that can provide lessons, or be adopted or rejected, relatively quickly.
  3. Encourage better ways to deal with alleged failure by treating ‘errors’ as sources of learning (rather than a means to punish organisations) or setting more realistic parameters for success/ failure.
  4. Encourage a greater understanding, within the public sector, of the implications of complex systems and terms such as ‘emergence’ or ‘feedback loops’.

In other words, this literature, when applied to policymaking, tends to encourage a movement from centrally driven targets and performance indicators towards a more flexible understanding of rules and targets by local actors who are more able to understand and adapt to rapidly-changing local circumstances.

Although complexity theory is described as new, these are familiar arguments in policy studies. Relevant texts in the policymaking literature include punctuated equilibrium theory, historical institutionalism and the following:

Lipsky’s idea of ‘street level bureaucracy’. He suggests that there are so many targets, rules and laws that no public agency or official can be reasonably expected to fulfil them all.  In fact, many may be too vague or even contradictory, requiring ‘street level bureaucrats’ to choose some over others.  The potential irony is that the cumulative pressure from more central government rules and targets effectively provides implementers with a greater degree of freedom to manage their budgets and day-to-day activities. Alternatively, central governments must effectively reduce their expectations by introducing performance measures which relate to a small part of government business (see this discussion of Street Level Organizations https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/street-level-bureacrats/).

Hjern’s focus on intra-departmental conflict, when central government departments pursue programmes with competing aims, and interdependence, when policies are implemented by multiple organizations. Programmes are implemented through ‘implementation structures’ where ‘parts of many public and private organizations cooperate in the implementation of a programme’. Although national governments create the overall framework of regulations and resources, and there are ‘administrative imperatives’ behind the legislation authorizing a programme, the main shaping of policy takes place at local levels.

Governance.  A lack of central control has prompted governments in the past to embrace New Public Management (NPM) and seek to impose order through hierarchy and targeting. However, local implementation networks (with members from the public, third and private sectors) have often proved not be amenable to such direct control.

Lindblom’s discussion of incrementalism in 1959: ‘Making policy is at best a very rough process. Neither social scientists, nor politicians, nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves. A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. If he proceeds through a succession of incremental changes, he avoids serious lasting mistakes’ (or she/ her).

Consequently, we should reject the idea of theoretical novelty for novelty’s sake. The value of complexity theory is not that it is trendy – it is that it allows us to use our knowledge of the natural and social world to understand and influence real world problems.

Where do we go from here?

Empirical issues: How does ‘complexity thinking’ improve our understanding of politics and policymaking?

Normative issues: The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

See ‘Complexity Theory in Political Science and Public Policy’ PDF Paywall Green and the introduction and conclusion to our Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy.

See also Professor Robert Geyer on Complexity and the Stacey Diagram – http://vimeo.com/25979052

Click on the picture at the top of this post for a nice surprise.

Series: Policy Concepts in 1000 words


Filed under 1000 words, public policy, UK politics and policy

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Evolution

(podcast download)

Evolutionary theory is prevalent in policymaking studies and it can be useful if we overcome some initial barriers. First, ‘evolution’ comes with a lot of baggage when we move from a discussion of animals to people. We can blame ‘social-Darwinism’ for the racist/ sexist idea that some people are more evolved than others.

Second, the word ‘evolution’ is used frequently in daily life, and academic studies, without a clear sense of its meaning. When it is used loosely in everyday language, it refers to a long term, gradual process of change. However, evolution can also refer to quick, dramatic change; the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ is that long spells of stability and gradual change are interrupted by relatively short but profound bursts of instability. When we get into the details of studies, there are other sources of potential confusion about, for example, the nature of evolution (does it refer to advancement as well as change?) and the nature of ‘selection’ (do species simply respond blindly to their environments or help create them?).

This sort of confusion can be found in the study of public policy where evolution can refer to a wide range of things, including:

  • the cumulative, long-term development of policy solutions;
  • major disruptions in the way that policy makers think about, and try to solve, policy problems;
  • the maintenance or radical reform of policy-making institutions;
  • ‘emergent’ behaviour within complex systems
  • the trial-and-error strategies adopted by actors, such as policy entrepreneurs, when adapting to their environment;
  • the coming together of multiple factors to create the conditions for major policy change (which can be a creative, ‘window of opportunity’ style process, or a destructive, failure-related ‘perfect storm’ style process).

The most prominent theories of politics and policymaking draw on references to evolution in different ways. For example:

Multiple Streams Analysis (Kingdon). Although policymaker attention may lurch from one problem to another, problems will not be addressed until policy solutions have evolved sufficiently within a policy community and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt them. ‘Evolution’ and the ‘policy primeval soup’ describe the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community.

Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (Baumgartner and Jones). ‘Incremental’ policy change in most cases is accompanied by ‘seismic’ change in a small number of cases – an outcome consistent with ‘power laws’ found in the natural and social worlds. Kingdon’s picture of slow progress producing partial mutations is replaced by Baumgartner and Jones’ fast, disruptive, pure mutation.

Complexity theory. People, institutions and their environments are interacting constantly to produce rather unpredictable outcomes (or outcomes that may ‘emerge’ locally, in the absence of central control). This might be broken down into three steps:

  • Institutions, as sets of rules and norms, represent ways for people to retain certain ideas and encourage particular forms of behaviours.
  • Complex systems represent (partly) a large number of overlapping and often interdependent institutions.
  • New behaviours and rules arise from the interaction between multiple institutions and the actors involved.

In other words, different ‘worlds’ are in constant collision, producing new ways of thinking and behaviour that ‘emerge’ from these interactions. They are then passed down through the generations, but in an imperfect way, allowing new forms of thinking and behaviour to emerge.

To describe these processes as ‘evolutionary’, we should use the language of evolution – variation, selection and retention – to describe and explain outcomes. The idea in the natural world is that certain beings (including humans) want to do at least two things: (1) pass on their genes; (2) cooperate with others to secure resources and share them out to their kith and kin. In the political world, the equivalent is passing on ‘memes’ (as described in the 70s by Richard Dawkins) – the ideas (beliefs, ways of thinking) that we use to understand the world and act within it:

  • ‘Variation’ refers to the different rules adopted by different social groups to foster the collective action required to survive.
  • ‘Selection’ describes the interaction between people and their environments; particular environments may provide an advantage to some groups over others and encourage certain behaviours (or, at least, some groups may respond by adapting their behaviour to their environment).
  • ‘Retention’ describes the ways in which people pass on their genes (memes) to ensure the reproduction of their established rules (we might call them ‘institutions’).

The distinctive aspect of applying evolutionary theory to policymaking relates to the idea of passing on memes through the generations. In nature, we think of passing on genes through the generations as a process that takes hundreds, thousands or millions of years. Passing on memes through the ‘policy generations’ is more like the study of fruit flies (months), viruses or bacteria (days or weeks). Ways of thinking, and emerging behaviour, change constantly as people interact with each other, articulating different beliefs and rules and producing new forms of thinking, rules and behaviour. Big jumps in ways of thinking may be associated with generational shifts, but that can take place, for example, as one generation of scientists retires (as described by Kuhn) or, more quickly still, one generation of experts is replaced (within government circles) by another (as described by Hall).

I have discussed in other ‘1000 words’ posts what happens when theories, derived from cases studies of US politics, are applied to other countries and cases. ‘Evolutionary theory’ is more difficult to track, because it is a body of disparate work, loosely related to work in natural science, applied in a non-coordinated way. The same can be said for studies of complexity theory.

To read more, see ‘What is evolutionary theory and how does it inform policy studies?’ PDF, weblink or Green.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

If Michael Gove accepted Cummings’ advice, would he bother getting out of bed?

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.

See also:

Complexity Theory and Policymaking

What is ‘Evolution’? What is ‘Complexity’? [and How does it inform the study of policymaking?]

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Filed under agenda setting, public policy, UK politics and policy