Policymaking amid complex systems: finding the levers of influence

By David Donaldson

May 14, 2018

Policymaking is full of problems impacted by complex systems — incorporating a large and often unpredictable range of people, institutions and other factors over which government typically has little control.

When things go wrong, it might be because government hasn’t figured out which levers to use, or the policy solution itself could create its own unintended consequences.

“There are lots of really great policies developed, but not all of them do the things that we’d like them to do,” says UNSW professor Deborah Blackman, in a new podcast released by Policy Forum about what policymakers can learn from the science of systems.

“A lot of it is about not understanding the system,” adds Blackman, a member of the Public Service Research Group in the School of Business at UNSW Canberra.

Taking a systems approach is helpful not only for understanding the policy big picture, but for working out where to go next.

“Particularly for policymakers, there’s so much written about change management,” Blackman tells the ANU Crawford School’s Professor Helen Sullivan.

“What you’re trying to do is change a system. That means you need to understand where the leverage points are, and when it will be possible to do them.

“We might not be able to fix the 20-year problem this year, but we can work out what year one needs to look like, so that we can think about 20 years. Even in a political cycle, that gives you something to be starting to move things with.”

Often a good place to start is by looking at what’s working already, as well as where the big risks are, who you might get offside by changing the current setup, and what you have already tried to change but not managed to.

“We might think we understand where the leverage point is, but clearly we don’t. And if we keep pushing at the same leverage point, if you keep trying to do the same thing, why would you think it would be different next time? If the leverage point has not worked, then you need a different one.”

Speaking to public servants recently, she said it became clear that many want to improve their ability to use mandate and politics cleverly.

“We assume that public servants can do that, and it became clear that it’s not necessarily a learned skill, it’s a capability that people need to develop,” said Blackman.

Fragmented governance

One issue policymakers often confront is that while different government departments might have clearly designated areas of authority, reality is not nearly so clearly divided. An example is what’s called the food-water-energy nexus, explains Professor Claudia Pahl-Wostl, director of the Institute for Environmental Systems Research at the University of Osnabrück in Germany, and co-chair of the Global Water System Project.

“You can’t manage or govern on water without considering other sectoral policies,” said Pahl-Wostl. “Often these policies are really incoherent, responsibilities in administration are very fragmented, [and] there are no effective instruments to coordinate policies.”

This is where thinking about systems can be helpful, and the way in which the needs and services of different actors are interrelated.

“What we try at the moment is to develop a more systemic perspective, to use an ecosystem-services approach. There are different services that people get or want to have from the ecosystem. How are they dependent?”

Systems of systems

Datu Buyung Agusdinata takes this kind of thinking one step further by looking at ‘systems of systems’. A senior sustainability scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, he defines this a combination of autonomous systems, which are independent operationally, but must nevertheless be part of a larger system to address an issue they can’t address on their own.

Cities are another area where a system-of-systems approach is helpful. If you’re thinking about urban revival, for example, the challenge of attracting people and companies to an area needs to address questions as diverse as schools, quality of life, retirement options for workers, access to transport for companies, macroeconomic policy, and so on.

“For the food-energy-water nexus, you have utility companies that control the provision of energy, you have farmers which produce food, and then you have water treatment plants and cities,” explains Agusdinata.

“They have to coordinate, because they need to achieve higher goals, to reduce the environmental footprint of food, energy, water consumption. This goal is not actually the reason for water utilities to exist, they exist to provide service reliability, they don’t exist to cut emissions. So how could you then reconcile these different priorities?”

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