Tag Archives: Making Policy in a Complex World

Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games

The ‘Ecology of Games Framework’ (EG) combines insights from many approaches to analyze ‘institutional complexity’ and ‘complex institutional systems’.

The focus is on actors learning how to secure ‘mutually beneficial outcomes’, cooperating to produce and deliver agreed solutions, and bargaining within a system over which no actor has control. Therefore, it is worth reading the posts on game theory, the IAD, and SES first (especially if, like me, you associated ‘game’ with tig, then Monopoly, then The Wire).


Insights from three key approaches

EG connects Norton’s ‘ecology of games’, the IAD, and insights from complexity theory to reinforce the idea that institutional arrangements are not simple and orderly.

In simple games, we need only analyse the interaction between a small number of actors with reference to one set of self-contained rules providing clear sanctions or payoffs. In real world policymaking, many different games take place at the same time in different venues.

Some policy games may be contained within a geographical area – such as California – but there are no self-contained collective action problems:

  • Examples such as ‘biodiversity’, ‘ecology’ or ‘environmental’ policies command a collection of interdependent policies relating to issues like local planning, protected species, water management, air pollution, transport, energy use, and contributors to such policies or policy problems in other areas of government (such as public services).
  • Each contributor to policy may come from different institutions associated with many policymaking venues spread across many levels and types of government.

Consequently, many games interact with each other. The same actor might participate in multiple games subject to different rules. Further, each game produces ‘externalities’ for the others; the ‘payoffs’ to each game are connected and complicated.

A focus on ‘complex adaptive systems’ suggests that central governments do not have the resources to control – or understand fully – interaction at this frequency and scale. Rather, policymaking influences are:

  • Internal to the game, when actors (a) follow and shape the rules of each institution, and (b) learn through trial and error.
  • External to the game, when physical resources change, or central levels of government change the resources of local actors.

Insights from the wider literature

The EG brings in wider insights – from theories in the 500 and 1000 Words series – to analyse this process. Examples include:

Consequently, we have come a long way from simple assumptions about human behaviour outlined in our first post in this series.

As with the IAD, the EG emphasis is on (a) finding solutions to complex (largely environmental) policy problems, with reference to (b) initiatives consistent with self-organising systems such as ‘collaborative governance’. Like most posts in this series, it rejects a naïve attachment to a single powerful central government. Policymaking is multi-centric, and solutions to complex problems will emerge in that context.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: it’s time for some game theory

Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD (the older post for the 1st edition)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?



Filed under 500 words, public policy

Policy Concept in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

Many theories in this 1000 words series describe multiple policymaking venues. They encourage us to give up on the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful national central government. Instead, there are many venues in which to make authoritative choices, each contributing to what we call policy.

The word ‘multi-centric’ (coined by Professor Tanya Heikkila, with me and Dr Matt Wood) does not suggest that every venue is of equal importance or power. Rather, it prompts us not to miss something important by focusing too narrowly on one single (alleged) centre of authority.

To some extent, multi-centric policymaking results from choice. Many federal political systems have constitutions that divide power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or give some protection to subnational governments. Many others have become ‘quasi-federal’ more organically, by sharing responsibilities with supranational and subnational governments. In such cases, there is explicit choice to distribute power and share responsibility for making policy (albeit with some competition to assert power or shuffle-off responsibility).

However, for the most part, this series helps explain the necessity of multi-centric policymaking with reference to two concepts:

  1. Bounded rationality. Policymakers are only able to pay attention to – and therefore understand and seek to control – a tiny proportion of their responsibilities.
  2. Complex policymaking environments. Policymakers operate in an environment over which they have limited understanding and even less control. It contains many policymakers and influencers spread across many venues, each with their own institutions, networks, ideas (and ways to frame policy), and responses to socio-economic context and events.

Both factors combine to provide major limits to single central government control. Elected policymakers deal with bounded rationality by prioritising some issues and, necessarily, delegating responsibility for the rest. Delegation may be inside or outside of central government.

1000 Words theories describing multi-centric government directly

Multi-level governance describes the sharing of power vertically, between many levels of government, and horizontally, between many governmental, quasi-non-governmental and non-governmental organisations. Many studies focus on the diffusion of power within specific areas like the European Union – highlighting choice – but the term ‘governance’ has a wider connection to the necessity of MLG.

For example, part of MLG’s origin story is previous work to help explain the pervasiveness of policy networks:

  • Policymakers at the ‘top’ ask bureaucrats to research and process policy on their behalf
  • Civil servants seek information and advice from actors outside of government
  • They often form enduring relationships built on factors such as trust.
  • Such policymaking takes place away from a notional centre – or at least a small core executive – and with limited central attention.

Polycentricity describes (a) ‘many decision centers’ with their own separate authority, (b) ‘operating under an overarching set of rules’, but with (c) a sense of ‘spontaneous order’ in which no single centre controls the rules or outcomes. Polycentric governance describes ‘policymaking centres with overlapping authority; they often work together to make decisions, but may also engage in competition or conflict’.

This work on polycentric governance comes primarily from the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework that helps compare the effectiveness of institutions designed to foster collective action. For example, Ostrom identifies the conditions under which non-governmental institutions can help manage ‘common pool resources’ effectively, while IAD-inspired studies of municipal governance examine how many ‘centres’ can cooperate as or more effectively than a single central government.

Complexity theory has a less clear origin story, but we can identify key elements of complex systems:

  • They are greater than the sum of their parts
  • They amplify or dampen policymaking activity, so the same action can have a maximal or no impact
  • Small initial choices can produce major long term momentum
  • There are regularities of behaviour despite the ever-present potential for instability
  • They exhibit ‘emergence’. Local outcomes seem to defy central direction.

Systems contain many actors interacting with many other actors. They follow and reproduce rules, which help explain long periods of regular behaviour. Or, many actors and rules collide when they interact, producing the potential for many bursts of instability. In each case, the system is too large and unpredictable to be subject to central control.

1000 Words theories describing multi-centric government indirectly

Many other theories in this series describe multi-centric policymaking – or aspects of it – without using this term directly. Examples include:

Punctuated equilibrium theory suggests that (a) policymakers at the ‘centre’ of government could pay attention to, and influence, most issues, but (b) they can only focus on a small number and must ignore the rest. Very few issues reach the ‘macropolitical’ agenda. Multiple policymaking organisations process the rest out of the public spotlight.

Multiple streams analysis turns the notion of a policy cycle on its head, and emphasises serendipity over control. Policy does not change until three things come together at the right ‘window of opportunity’: attention to a problem rises, a feasible solution exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to act. Modern MSA studies show that such windows exist at multiple levels of government.

The advocacy coalition framework describes the interaction between many policymakers and influencers. Coalitions contain actors from many levels and types of government, cooperating and competing within subsystems (see networks). They are surrounded by a wider context – over which no single actor has direct control – that provides the impetus for ‘shocks’ to each coalition.

In such accounts, the emphasis is on high levels of complexity, the potential for instability, and the lack of central control over policymaking and policy outcomes. The policy process is not well described with reference to a small group of policymakers at the heart of government.

The implications for strategy and accountability

Making Policy in a Complex World explores the implications of multi-centric policymaking for wider issues including:

  1. Accountability. How do we hold elected policymakers to account if we no longer accept that there is a single government to elect and scrutinise? See MLG for one such discussion.
  2. Strategy. How can people act effectively in a policy process that seems too complex to understand fully? See this page on ‘evidence based policymaking’

Further Reading:

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Policy in 500 words

5 images of the policy process

[right click for the audio]

Making Policy in a Complex World (preview PDF ) also provides a short explainer of key terms as follows:

multicentric box 1


Filed under 1000 words, public policy