Systems and complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 3.1): Where? Facilitating decentralised action and self-organisation

This article is section 3.1 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.

Implementing agencies will need to work in a collaborative and facilitative mould. Emerging insights from research into adaptive governance shows that successfully managing complex problems requires an acceptance of polycentric institutional arrangements, with management power shared between many nested and quasi-autonomous decision-making units operating at many different levels1. Recent empirical and theoretical research points to the hitherto unrecognised value of more loosely structured governance arrangements which rely on emergent and voluntary coordination, collaboration and partnerships2, linking smaller governance systems to form dynamic networks capable of addressing macro-level issues3. Such autonomous, self-organised systems, conceptualised as ‘polycentric governance,’ have been shown to enhance innovation, learning, adaptation, cooperation and trustworthiness, and can help achieve more effective, equitable and sustainable outcomes at multiple levels4.

So, tackling complex policy problems requires multi-level governance systems that work at multiple, interlinked levels, promoting learning and cooperation. Part of this will require increased attention to how to capitalise on the effectiveness of lower levels in addressing problems, and looking at how to promote ownership and trust at many levels. Implementation should thus focus on enabling and facilitating emergent, decentralised and self-organised responses to a problem. Although this does not fit with traditional implementation approaches, there are a number of ways in which management and accountability can be handled.

The subsections in this section (section 3.1) are:

3.1.1 – Decentralisation and autonomy

3.1.2 – Engaging local institutions and anchoring interventions

3.1.3 – Convening and boundary management

3.1.4 – Building adaptive capacity

3.1.5 – Remove the barriers to self-organisation

3.1.6 – Supporting networked governance

3.1.7 – Leadership and facilitation

3.1.8 – Incremental intervention.

Next part (section 3.1.1): Decentralisation and autonomy.

See also these related series:

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.

References and notes:

  1. Folke, C., Hahn, T., Olsson, P. and Norberg, J. (2005). ‘Adaptive Governance of Socio-ecological Systems.’ Annual Review of Environment and Resources 30: 441-473.
  2. Folke, C., Hahn, T., Olsson, P. and Norberg, J. (2005). ‘Adaptive Governance of Socio-ecological Systems.’ Annual Review of Environment and Resources 30: 441-473.
  3. Brondizio, E., Ostrom, E. and Young, O. (2009). ‘Connectivity and the Governance of Multilevel Socialecological Systems: The Role of Social Capital.’ Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34: 253-278.
  4. Moreover, some argue that, in order to tackle complexity, we need complexity in our governance systems, through polycentrism and redundancy – the ‘diversity hypothesis,’ similar to the law of requisite variety. Duit, A., Galaz, V., Eckerberg, K. and Ebbesson, J. (2010). ‘Governance, Complexity and Resilience.’ Global Environmental Change 20(3) 363-368.

Harry Jones

Author of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper "Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems."

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