Complexity and public policy: new approaches and old concerns

In this post, Paul Cairney and Robert Geyer talk about their new Handbook of Complexity and Public Policy, and how it suggests complexity can offer us new insights and normative tools to respond to a wicked world in novel and pragmatic ways. 

Complexity theorists often make bold claims about its potential to represent a scientific revolution that it will change the way we think about, and study, the natural and social world. In public policy, it often represents a new way to describe and research familiar phenomena, and some of its key tenets may seem familiar to policy scholars:

  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.

These tenets mean different things to different disciplines, and there is also great potential to interpret them differently within the study of public policy. Yet, there has developed a fairly coherent practical discussion of their implications to public policy:

  • 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 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.

In other words, ‘complexity thinking’ in domestic contexts is about seeking effective policymaking alternatives which rely less on uniform policy and centrally driven targets and more on trial-and-error and local discretion to adapt to rapidly changing environments. In a wider international context, these warnings seem starker: policy outcomes often seem to ‘emerge’ despite government attempts to control them, largely because we live in an interconnected world, where ideas, commodities, cultures, and people travel and spread through time and space. Problems and issues such as climate change, violent crime, global financial crisis and health pandemics do not remain confined and static but mutate to effect different spaces, actors, and resources.

‘Complexity thinking’ describes a way to understand these systems, act accordingly, and invite others to do the same. To do this, our Handbook brings together a wide range of specialists to address these issues from different angles: disciplinary specialists examining how complexity thinking influences the study of topics such as the law, philosophy and politics; interdisciplinary teams examining how best to model or describe complex systems; case study specialists explaining the outcomes of real world events; and scholars and practitioners examining how to ‘translate’ complexity theory into ‘simple’ policymaking advice.

The Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy represents a practical resource for policy-makers, to help them navigate through a range of complex issues and problems, and understand why their proposed solutions often have a limited effect.  The Handbook also raises important questions and signals debates that remain unresolved. Most notably, how do we hold policymakers to account in complex systems? If, as we suggest, it is unreasonable to expect elected policymakers at the centre to control policy outcomes, can we really blame them for not delivering on their promises, or for the unintended consequences of their policies?

Complexity theory may represent a new scientific paradigm, but it does not offer the same revolution in the ways in which we think about accountability. People still want to praise or blame elected governments for their decisions, and this remains a key obstacle to the practical, normative agenda often associated with complexity theory. So, we hope that the Handbook sparks further empirical research and normative ideas about how we can use these new insights to inform policymaking in the real world.

The full list of chapters can be found on the Edward Elgar site and you can read the introduction and conclusion (as well as a brief and more critical article) by following the links. 

Posted by Luke Craven.