Whats the problem? ComplexITY and social policy

The push to collaborate has increased the complexity of the policy-making and policy-implementation processes.

To collaborate effectively, the right supports and platforms are necessary. In this post, Dr Gemma Carey from Australian National University reflects on this problem, and what she and others are doing to remedy it.

Recently, Kathy Landvogt and I gave a workshop at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the Australian National University on the conceptual underpinnings of Power to Persuade.

For those who are unfamiliar, Power to Persuade (PTP) aims to develop communities of practice within new and emerging policy networks, arming them with the skills and knowledge to work more effectively together. We do this by providing new spaces (both virtual and in person) for individuals to come together and ‘meet differently’ – in a way that considers the functioning of the ‘whole’, not just specific organisations or services.

In this blog post I focus on the theory of the problem that PTP is addressing. Kathy will provide a follow up post with the solution PTP is providing.

What’s missing in the new era of devolved government and network governance?

Since the 1990s, ‘joined-up government’, ‘whole-of-government’ and ‘horizontal governance’ approaches have emerged in many industrialised countries as an attempt to grapple with ‘wicked’ public and social policy issues which implicate multiple government departments and different actors. Wicked problems are those that cannot be solved by one actor alone (even if that actor is government).

This has resulted in the devolution of government functions to diverse and extensive policy networks. You now hear the term ‘governance’ used a lot, rather than government, which reflects this shift. Broadly, the idea is that the hierarchical government bureaucracy of the 20th Century is no longer an appropriate vehicle for the delivery and development of public and social policy, or securing good outcomes for citizens.

These changes have occurred as part of cost shifting measures, alongside more genuine beliefs (on both sides of politics) that those closest to communities are best positioned to provide effective and efficient public services. Governments now use a range of ‘outsourcing’ techniques, from formal market arrangements (as promoted by new public management), through to more collaborative initiatives. Public policy scholars believe are moving towards a new era of unprecedented collaboration and partnership between sectors.

What has been created by these shifts is a complex system of networked actors designing, implementating and influencing policy. This includes different parts of government, the community sector, philanthropy, corporates and academics.

Arguably, networked approaches to policy may solve some problems. They minimise the risks and costs to government by spreading out responsibility and they mean that programs and decisions are made closer to community groups – which hopefully means they are better. But, as with all paradigm shifts, new problems have emerged.

We now have many different actors working in policy: in its design (such as government), in its implementation (for example, through community service organisations) and/or in influencing it (for example, lobbying). This is happening both informally, through research and advocacy efforts; and formally, through government consultations, submissions on policy proposals or when government contracts an organisation to deliver government services. As a result, large numbers of actors are involved in the policy process, who are rarely clear on what role they are playing, let alone how they relate to others in this new space.

The problem from a community organisation perspective is that we are invited into various parts of the policy ‘implementation – influence – design’ process without clear knowledge of the invitation’s purpose. We are all seeking better outcomes, but if co-creation of policy is seen as a way to achieve that, then the processes undermine this just as much as they support it. For example: in the current Victorian service sector reform, government wants innovation on the one hand but pushes providers to be larger and more institutionalised to meet their funding and accountability requirements on the other hand. Further, government invites co-creation through policy submissions and a joint governance councils, but that rational process has been interrupted by major changes in related service areas (mental health, and alcohol and drug services) that the council has stepped in to address. The processes are not linear but densely networked, and they are not so much technical problem-solving as political trouble-shooting.

This example also illustrates another factor: the growing turbulence and ‘noise’ in the policy space, which encourages actors to be very reactionary. In the midst of this, there is an organisational imperative to keep one’s head and remain committed to the processes that seem riskier, being slower and more process-driven, but have both intellectual and moral integrity.

Skill and knowledge deficiencies

With the profound shifts in how governments operate over the last two to three decades, we have seen new communities of practice emerging, who are interested in shaping policy in different ways. With this, skill and knowledge gaps have emerged; operating in this very complex environment requires a new set of skills.

To date, there has been a focus on the development of technical skills as opposed to the development of skills to work within a complex system. This has meant ensuring more qualified practitioners are working with more sophisticated reporting mechanisms – but it is really about the interface between services and citizens.

There is also a lack of knowledge concerning the functioning of the system as a ‘whole', and no investment in the capacity of policy actors to understand and navigate the whole system (not just how individual services, organisations or parts of government function). This means that there has not been sufficient investment in the skills and knowledge of those outside of government to work in complex networks.

Efforts to enhance the relationships between government and policy networks have largely been attached to political agendas and program delivery imperatives. Arguably, it isn’t really the role of government to invest in the functioning of the system as a whole, or to build the skills and knowledge of different parts of the system to contribute to policy in an abstract sense. The role of government is to pass political agendas and achieve service delivery and policy outcomes. So naturally, they are only going to invest in skill development that relates directly to these objectives. This means there is a serious gap which isn’t being addressed for the very reasons that the gap exists – it isn’t the responsibility of any one actor to address the functioning of the system as a whole.

Here in lies to the role of Power to Persuade, which we will explain in the next post.