This article is the foreword of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems.
This [series] … is about one of the most important and perennially topical issues in the promotion of development and social change – the role of information and knowledge in improving results and ways of working.
Managers with money to spend and auditors on their heels are typically attracted to radical simplifications of reality which permit an exclusive focus on establishing measurable relationships between inputs and outcomes. They welcome approaches to monitoring and evaluation which promise either to ‘demonstrate results’ or to reveal forms of intervention that do not work and should be abandoned. Rigorously done, the collection of such information is seen as a central tool for implementation, providing for both the accountability to funders and the learning from experience that responsible planners need.
Another band of practical people is typically concerned with the lack of realism entailed by this style of managerialism. In all but the simplest interventions, the relationship between inputs and the desired outcomes involves systems of interaction between intelligent individual human beings and corporate actors in which there is, from a planner’s point of view, a great deal of in-built uncertainty. If in such contexts the generation and use of information is restricted to ‘demonstrating results’, the learning both within and about processes of change is going to be limited at best. A nominal accountability to funders may be served, but very likely at some cost to the quality of the intervention.
Harry Jones belongs to the second band of practical people. His [series] … provides a comprehensive and up-to-date report on where this type of thinking has gone since it was last centre-stage in thinking about development policy – I am thinking particularly of the confrontation in the 1980s between ‘blueprint’ planning concepts and adaptive or learning-process approaches. The literature on the various issues entailed by characterising social systems as ‘complex’ is now large and for outsiders rather inaccessible. The implications it may have for the practical business of trying to improve change initiatives and programmes of assistance in a field like international development are far from self-evident. Harry therefore provides a useful service in exploring systematically the various types of policy challenges and action decisions to which this thinking is relevant.
The [series] … starts in Section 2 by reminding us of the technical meaning of ‘complexity’ (importantly, a complex problem is not just a complicated or difficult one). It then walks us through the ‘when, where and how’ of using knowledge, information or understanding in ways that are likely to improve policies and practices in the real world. There are frequent warnings about the harm that can be done by using tools of planning or monitoring that are ill-adapted to the purpose of facilitating progressive change in interactive systems. On the whole, however, the tone is up-beat and the messages practical. They are directly relevant to challenges at the top of the development-policy agenda, including enabling transformative economic growth, facilitating improvements in political governance and (an example of my own) addressing the downstream service-quality problems that continue to blunt the effectiveness of aid-financed sector programmes in many countries.
Readers of Section 3, which sets out ‘practical guidance for dealing with complexity’, will no doubt be inspired by some of Harry’s suggestions and remain unconvinced by others. But the [series] … helpfully sets out the reasoning leading him from dimensions of complexity to recommended ways of working, using the same ‘when, where and how’ headings. Together with the richness of the cross-references to related ideas (realistic evaluation, outcome mapping, cost-effective feedback loops, and so on), this will enable users of the [series] … to arrive at their own conclusions and be enriched in the process.
The [series] … is a resource to which I, for one, will return more than once, as my immediate concerns bring me back to one or other of the many important issues on which it has wise guidance to offer.
David Booth, May 2011
Next part: Executive summary.
See also these related series:
- Exploring the science of complexity
- Planning and strategy development in the face of complexity
- Managing in the face of complexity.
Article source: Jones, H. (2011). Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems. Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper 330. London: ODI. (https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/6485.pdf). Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.