Tracey Burns, Project Leader, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
The famous slogan “KISS” urges listeners to “Keep it simple, stupid!” However, modern policy making is increasingly discovering that not keeping it simple – in fact, embracing the complex – is essential to understanding contemporary systems and making reform work.
Modern societies are made up of a growing number of diverse stakeholders who collaborate through formal and informal channels. The rapid advancement and reach of information and communication technologies has enabled them to play a much more immediate role in decision-making while at the same time the delivery of public services has become more decentralised.
This complexity brings a series of dynamics that the traditional policy cycle is not able to capture. This is not startling news: numerous critics have described the inadequacy of the traditional policy cycle in agriculture, medicine, and education for the last 30 years. What has changed, however, is a growing understanding across a much broader set of actors that we can no longer continue to operate using traditional linear models of reform.
This is not just a theoretical discussion: ignoring the dynamic nature of the governance process makes reform less effective. In education for instance, even very similar schools can react quite differently to the same intervention. A case study of the Netherlands demonstrated how some weak schools benefitted from being labelled as in need of improvement, coming together as a school community to set off a virtuous cycle to improve performance. In contrast other schools struggled when faced with the same label, with some descending into vicious cycles where teachers felt unmotivated, parents moved their children to another school, and overall performance declined. A simple model of reform and governance cannot account for this complexity.
How can complexity be identified? A seminal 2002 paper by Glouberman and Zimmerman distinguishes between three types of problems: the simple, the complicated, and the complex. A simple problem is, for example, baking a cake. For a first time baker, this is not easy, but with a recipe and the ingredients you can be relatively sure that you will succeed. Expertise here is helpful, but not required.
In contrast, a complicated problem would be sending a rocket to the moon. Here, formulas are essential and high level expertise is not only helpful, but necessary. However, rockets are similar to each other in critical ways, and once you have solved the original complicated problem, you can be reasonably certain that you’ll be able to do it again.
Both simple and complicated problems can be contrasted with a complex problem, such as raising a child. As every parent knows, there is no recipe or formula that will ensure success. Bringing up one child provides useful experience, but it is no guarantee of success with another. This is because each child is unique and sometimes unpredictable. Solutions that may work in one case may only partially work, or not work at all, in another.
Returning to the failing school example, it was the unpredictability of the dynamics inherent in the response of the schools and their communities that rendered the problem complex as opposed to merely complicated. Acknowledging the complexity inherent in modern governance is thus an essential first step to effective reform. Successful modern governance:
- Focuses on processes, not structures. Almost all governance structures can be successful under the right conditions. The number of levels, and the power at each level, is not what makes or breaks a good system. Rather, it is the strength of the alignment across the system, the involvement of actors, and the processes underlying governance and reform.
- Is flexible and able to adapt to change and unexpected events. Strengthening a system’s ability to learn from feedback is a fundamental part of this process, and is also a necessary step to quality assurance and accountability.
- Works through building capacity, stakeholder involvement and open dialogue. However it is not rudderless: involvement of a broader range of stakeholders only works when there is a strategic vision and set of processes to harness their ideas and input.
- Requires a whole of system approach. This requires aligning policies, roles and responsibilities to improve efficiency and reduce potential overlap or conflict (e.g. between accountability and trust, or innovation and risk-avoidance).
- Harnesses evidence and research to inform policy and reform. A strong knowledge system combines descriptive system data, research findings and practitioner knowledge. The key is knowing what to use, why and how.
Creating the open, dynamic and strategic governance systems necessary for governing complex systems is not easy. Modern governance must be able to juggle the dynamism and complexity at the same time as it steers a clear course towards established goals. And with limited financial resources it must do this as efficiently as possible. Although a challenging task, it is a necessary one.
The OECD is organising a Workshop on Complexity and Policy, 29-30 September, OECD HQ, Paris, along with the European Commission and INET. Watch the webcast: 29/09 morning; 29/09 afternoon; 30/09 morning