Cairney's Complexity Theory in Public Policy

Does Cairney’s model of complexity theory in public policy provide a useful means for strategists to pursue their goals? Discuss with reference to one or more specific policy areas known to you.

The world is overwhelmingly complex. To deal with this we use frameworks and other methods to compare and contrast things in an effort to make decisions and take action. In this paper we are going to look at Paul Cairney's concepts about modeling complexity theory for use in organizational strategy and whether this perspective is useful, with specific referents pulled from experiences in the local government of Dalton Township, Michigan, USA.

The complexity of problems, methods, and solutions is noted in almost all books on government and policy, "...change anywhere can result in unpredictable results elsewhere as the behavior of complex systems often demonstrates a sensitive and unpredictable dependence on initial conditions." (Bryson, 2018, pg 149) The simplifications used in thinking and communication are also often noted, "...any large party is decentralized. While references to 'the party' as a single entity are unavoidable, they simplify a highly fragmented reality." (Hague, Harrop, McCormick, 2016, pg 257) And useful theories are put forward about causes and effects, " many cases the complexity of government is about reconciling equally legitimate, but opposing objectives." (Joyce, 2015, pg 207)

Cairney uses three terms that give the "same overall message" but have a different emphasis: multi-level governance, polycentric governance, and complexity theory. He states that "Complexity theory describes complex systems in which behaviour seems to 'emerge' at local levels and to defy central control." (Cairney, Heikkila, Wood, 2019, pg 7) Cairney states that complexity theory "marks a scientific revolution" by shifting focus from "parts of a system to the system as a whole.” (Cairney, 2012, pg 1)

Such insights about the world are important, but may not be as recent or new as Cairney believes. "All the world's problems arise from slight causes, and all great achievements have small beginnings." (Tzu, n.d., pg 63) It may be useful to take into account the idea that "...all theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that lead us to see, understand, and manage organizations in distinctive yet partial ways." (Morgan, 2006, pg 4) Cairney seems to be pursuing a theory that will exactly map the world, but not realizing that "...every theory necessarily simplifies and therefore distorts the reality." (Mintzberg, 1989, pg 259)

Cairney points out two potentially valuable things that complexity theory can contribute. The main advantage being academic, a connecting point for the social and natural sciences. The second thing being three pieces of advice: rejecting top-down control, that unintended consequences are inevitable, and a third vague notion about trying to come up with better ideas. (Cairney, 2012, pg 8-10) I do not intend to be overly critical, but I think it's important to recognize a significant danger in complexity theory and show that there are better management and strategy theories that already account for any insights that have been generated from complexity theory.

There is an infinite amount of data available in the universe. Relevant selection of a limited set of data from a limited exposure to data is a necessary part of consciousness and life. This being the first pertinent factor, we can and do ignore data that then derails plans and goals. In an effort to adjust for this we must balance our attention in limiting our data intake to that which we know is relevant and in exploration of unknown factors that may or may not be relevant. (Peterson and Flanders, 2002)

Since complexity theory emphasizes the importance of small, diverse, and extended factors in the process and outcome that must be taken into strategic account, the possibility for overwhelm in a cascade of conceptual complexity with a proliferation of incalcuable parameters resulting in stagnation, confusion, and indecision is a real concern. This can lead to an over-large awareness that "The behaviour of complex systems is difficult (or impossible) to predict." (Cairney, 2012, pg 3) Therefore it's useful and best to strike a better balance, such as strategies that can incorporate both control and emergent properties. (Mintzberg, 1989, pg 32-42)

Even small governments can be and are complex, with many known and unknown stakeholders and interested parties with both known and unknown goals and coalitions. In view of using the hive-mind I view it as useful to release knowledge so that it may be discussed by private parties in the public over time. Then, through various avenues both direct and indirect, ideas and suggestions filter their way back to me. When I started talking about doing land sales to pay down the sewer fund debt word spread about the idea. Because of the spread of information we've had to do almost no advertising for land sales to accomplish this.

I've often talked about unintended consequences and tradeoffs in township activities and decisions. For instance, roads are a major complaint and concern in Dalton Township. So too are taxes. So too are the increasing number of fire department calls without fulltime firefighters. Therefore a decision has to be made. At this point we're planning on going for a millage next year to add fulltime firefighters. That means, as an unintended tradeoff, that I won't go for a road millage. I'm still budgeting for road improvements, but I can't ask for two millage increases in a single four year term, it's too much. So we must manage as best as possible within the applied context, which is complex.

Cairney's complexity theory can have useful insights, but none that are new. And, it also carries with it other dangers by its method and emphasis of conceptualization. For these reasons I recommend getting the useful insights through alternative theories of strategy, management, policy, and politics.

Reference List

Bryson JM (2018) Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations. 5th Edition. Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Cairney P (2012) ‘Complexity theory in political science and public policy’. Political Studies Review, 10, 346–58.

Cairney, P.; Heikkila, T.; Wood, M. (2019) Making Policy in a Complex World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Hague R, M Harrop and J McCormick (2016) Comparative Government and Politics.109th Edition. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Joyce P (2015) Strategic Management in the Public Sector. Oxford UK: Routledge.

Tzu, Lao (n.d.) Tao Te Ching. Translated by Dwight Goddard, revised by Sam Torode. Publisher: Ancient Renewal, Sam Torode Book Arts.

Mintzberg, Henry (1989) Mintzberg on Mangement. New York, NY, USA: Free Press.

Morgan, Gareth (2006) Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Peterson, J. B., & Flanders, J. L. (2002). Complexity management theory: motivation for ideological rigidity and social conflict. Cortex;  38(3), 429–458.



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