Sunday, October 23, 2011
Is complexity theory useful?
Thirty years ago terms such as "policy failure” and "implementation drift” were all the rage in political science circles – with the implicit assumption that such drift was a bad thing ie that the original policy had been and/or remained relevant and effective. Nowadays we are more sceptical about the capacity of national (and EU) policy-making – and (therefore?) more open to systems thinking and complexity theory and its implications for public management. Certainly Gordon Brown’s fixation with targets was positively Stalinistic – and was progressively softened and finally abolished on his demise. I have blogged several times about the naivety of the belief that national governments (and, logically, companies) could control events by pulling levers – sometimes calling in aid posts from the thoughful blog Aid on the edge of chaos ; John Seddon and his systems approach and Jake Chapman who wrote a useful paper some time ago about the implications of systems thinking for government.
I have never, however found it easy to get my head around the subject. I am now reading the Institute of Government’s recent pamphlet on System Stewardship which is exploring the implications for english Civil Service skills of the Coalition government apparent hands-off approach to public services ie inviting a range of more localised organisations to take over their running – within some sort of strategic framework. The task of senior civil servants then becomes that of designing and learning from (rather than monitoring (?) the new system of procurements. My immediate thought is why so few people are talking about the reinvention of English local government (turned in the last 2 decades into little more than an arm of central government) – ie of inviting/requiring local authorities (rather than central government) to do the commissioning. The logic of complexity theory for collective organisations is presumably to reduce hierarchies and move decision-making as near as possible to individuals in their localities. Neoliberals say this means markets (dominated by large oligopolies); democrats say it means municipalities committed to delegation and/or mutual societies and social enterprises; and many northern Europeans would argue that they have the answer with their mixture of coalition governments, consultation and strong municipalities. But those who write in the English language don't pay much attention to that.
When I googled "stewardship”, I realised it has, in the last few years, become a new bit of jargon – and have to wonder if it is not a new smokescreen for neo-liberalism.
For the moment, I keep an open mind and will be reading three papers I have found as a result of this reading – a rather academic-looking Complexity theory and Public Administration – what’s new?; a rather opaque-looking Governance and complexity – emerging issues for governance theory; and a more useful-looking Governance, Complexity and Democratic participation – how citizens and public officials But I'm not holding my breath for great insights - just seems to be academic reinvention by new labels.