Policy problems are complex. So what?

Koen Bartels, Selen Ercan and John Boswell

Image: Robert Couse-Baker

There is no denying that we live in complex times, featuring a global pandemic, climate change, and structural inequality. Complex problems are often incredibly difficult to address. Policy makers, practitioners and scholars have known this for a long time. In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term ‘wicked problems’ to describe problems that were so complicated and ambiguous that those involved could not even agree on what the problem exactly was, and how a good solution would look like. Twenty years later, Jan Kooiman argued that the governance systems in place to address these complex problems are equally complex.

Yes, policy problems are complex. So what?

We are not asking this question out of apathy. Instead, we want to find out what it actually means to call policy problems ‘complex’. What difference does it make to those involved to call a problem complex? How do they make sense of complexity and deal with it? In what ways can we understand and study complexity? And is it possible to somehow solve complex problems? These were the kind of questions we addressed during this year’s section ‘Navigating Complexity in Policy and Politics: Prospects and Challenges’, which we co-convened at the annual ECPR conference 2021.

Panels explored complex problems in different policy areas and contexts including ecological sustainability, criminal justice and urban transformations. We have learnt, for example, how Roma migrant women navigate and reorganise their everyday lives when their husbands ‘disappear’ to jail, leaving them in a tremendous state of uncertainty posed by highly discriminatory criminal justice system. Another panel speaker revealed the practical consequences of the complex child protection system in Chile: this system led to tragic policy failures that destroyed or even ended children’s lives. Several presentations explained how governance systems ‘locked in’ the status quo continued to frustrate policies and efforts to promote sustainability.

This year’s section also featured a roundtable on Nicole Curato’s recent book Democracy in Times of Misery. We had the opportunity to ask Curato questions about her ethnographic work in the Philippines, and the ways she uses normative political theory to make sense of the emerging democratic practices in the aftermath of natural disasters. As we heard from Curato and other contributors of the roundtable, one key challenge for democracy we identified is to listen to the ‘unspeakable tragedies’ taking place in the world and celebrate the ‘humble victories’ through which citizens reclaim public space.

What emerges as an important avenue for better understanding complexity both from the panel discussions and the roundtable on Curato’s book is the need to focus more on the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Shifting the focus from the trade-offs policy makers face when dealing with complex policy problems to the ways citizens experience complexity can offer novel ways of comprehending and addressing complexity. One of the panel speakers explored how citizens make sense of austerity and the ways this influences their political views. Another panel speaker explained how a focus on people’s experiences of the area in which they live can help understand how to best give shape to economic development policies, such as the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda.

Similarly, a focus on the everyday practices of policy makers can cast new light on how they deal with complexity. One panel speaker for instance explained why they publicly remain proponents of collaboration to deal with ‘wicked problems’, despite their privately held ‘wicked thoughts’ about the frustrations and limitations they experience in practice. If you must know, they do it to get access to other actors, build alliances, infiltrate networks, or channel conflict. So, by acknowledging the complexity of policy problems, policy makers can justify inaction or reinforce the status quo.

Methodological innovations, such as ‘Trajectory-Based Qualitative Comparative Analysis’, can help to trace the complexity of urban transformations. While action research can help to foster joint learning about how to work with, rather than control or resolve complexity. One participant wrote in her paper: “We are drowning in the ocean of theories and case studies of water governance, but why does it not match up with the successful implementation of those goals?” There is an important role here for policy analysts to foster learning and change in collaboration with stakeholders. In fact, many presentations demonstrated significant (untapped) potential for helping to harness the complex problems they identified.

We might even say that, like the weather, many participants were talking about complexity but not doing anything with it. Nearly everyone evoked the notion ‘wicked problems’ to frame their research, but relatively few actually used looked at the world in terms of complexity. Complexity theory is one of the major innovations of the past decades in the Social Sciences and has also gotten a foothold in the field of Public Policy. It views the world in terms of complexity that cannot be controlled or known objectively. Like the flight patterns of a flock of birds, the world is unpredictable and emergent. We need to accept this and make sense of the ‘complex adaptive systems’ that take shape (and are constantly changing) in interaction between webs of interdependent actors. This, again, asks for stakeholders to engage in ongoing learning and adaptation as they collaboratively confront the complex problems they face in everyday practice.

Koen Bartels is Associate Professor at INLOGOV and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

Selen Ercan is Associate Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

John Boswell is Associate Professor at the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance, University of Southampton and Co-Convener of the ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

One thought on “Policy problems are complex. So what?

  1. http://m7f78aqxak.wordpress.com/

    Policy problems are complex. So what?

    Thank you for that worthwhile contribution. People’s individual and ‘collective’ brains will have degrees of awareness of complexity. They, singular and plural, have to ‘decide’ how to navigate the mini- or macro- worlds they perceive, whether sufficiently comprehensive their view/assessment may be.

    Takes me back to the town planning diploma short dissertation I chiselled out of the 1971 London-based world I was inhabiting. I had brought geography and ecology (even then) to the table. The result was to consider residential area planning policies through an ecology lens. Narrowing it to David Malcolm Eagar, ‘Diversity and flexibility as residential area objectives: an ecological appraisal’, Department of Town Planning, Polytechnic of Central London, January 1972. For what it may be worth (to you), here were, verbatim, the most relevant section of the Summary:

    ‘In synopsis the conclusions are that the human behavioural element in planning systems ensures that some objectives cannot be interpreted in ecosystem terms. However, many objectives for flexibility and diversity do seem to be in accord with ecological principles. Among the features of ecosystems considered relevant to planning objectives are: alternative structures and flows can increase stability; optimum habitat requirements are modified by the opportunities which environments offer; spatial organisation designed for local needs should be as unique as any pint in nature; diversity is the basis for distinguishing changes between ecological sub-systems, for which in residential arises, social and dwelling, and environmental criteria apply; diversity as a measure of organisation must be qualified; in the more mature stages of an ecological succession, species- and pattern-diversity increase; ecologically, immature systems fluctuate most frequently; ecologically, planning should discriminate in its anticipation of and response to social and technological pressures; plans should not be so flexible that they persmit the reduction of diversity spectra at the habitat or local scale; and persisting systems have incorporated their environment.’ END of quotation.

    This example relates to two of the three panel examples in your paper today: ecological sustainability, and urban transformations. An issue with viewing and attempting to understand ‘the world’ (in which we find ourselves living) is the difficulty (near impossibility?) of attaining sufficient levels of collective ‘co-awareness’ of the nature of things (to use that useful Anglo-Saxon word).

    Key questions may be: what is actually going on/wrong, and what matters most, and what is an optimum sequence for tackling what is going ‘wrong’?

    Acknowledging ‘complexity’ is potentially helpful starting place. Making connections with other people in recognising issues is important, though there will be the risk of being sidetracked away from important, and often ‘new’ awarenesses and insights. Being self-grounded and having a personal frame of reference, and personal objective(s) for issue (and complexity) identification, unraveling and resolution is important.

    David Malcolm Eagar

    BA(Hons) Geography, Birmingham; MSc Ecology, UCNW, Bangor; DipTP PCL/Westminster; MPhil Bangor; CMLI(Rtd); FRTPI(Rtd).

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