What is complexity thinking for public policy?

Well, this is quite a tricky knot to untangle!

First of all, it could be argued that there are two complex systems pertaining to any policy challenge. The first is in the underlying issue which the policy is hoping to address. This may or may not be a complex (as opposed to complicated) problem.   If the policy problem is complex, and most are, an approach underpinned by complexity thinking is appropriate. The converse is clearly also is true, if it is not complex, then a complexity approach is inappropriate.  Climate change mitigation is well recognised as a supremely complex systemic problem, even in developed countries!

The second is the policy-making process itself. Post-positivist public policy literature implicitly responds and speaks into to this complexity. Theories dealing with ‘institutionalism’ deal with the order and stability aspect of a complex system, ‘policy networks theory’ describes how policy actors within and outside of government interact to enable particular policies and policy approaches to emerge at particular times. Kingdon’s ‘policy streams’ speaks of unpredictability in the policy process, Sabatier’s ‘actor coalitions’ talk of path dependence and there are more.

However, whilst most of these theories produce valuable insights and descriptions of complexity, none of them give an account that characterises policymaking itself as a complex system, placing the emergent processes of such a system at its core.  And it is this focus that holds promise for understanding how change complex social systems could be influenced. But unpacking this is for another blog post…

Here, we need to return briefly to the argument of there being two complex systems pertaining to any policy challenge: Unfortunately the total complexity we find ourselves dealing with is not just a straightforward addition of ‘complex policy problem’ plus ‘complex policy process’. The particular problem system itself interacts with the process system to produce a larger complex system. And it is here that aspects of complexity beyond the properties of complex systems are needed – complexity principles and appreciation of the emerging complexity paradigm can guide us into this particularly, um, ‘complex’, terrain.

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