Systems and complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 4.1): What are the implications for governance and public administration?

This article is part of section 4 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.

In the face of complex problems, any single ‘answer’ to a problem is unlikely to be sufficient for long: the processes and capacities involved in steering interventions need to be cared for and valued. One clear implication is the need for further emphasis on ‘governance’ in development:

In the face of intensification of societal complexity […] [we should see governance as] the complex art of steering multiple agencies and institutions which are operationally autonomous from one another and structurally coupled through […] reciprocal interdependence. […] Governance appears to have moved up the theoretical and practical agenda because complexity undermines the basis for hierarchical top-down control1.

However, complexity implies that the scope of ‘governance’ needs to widen considerably. Even if they do not immediately appear as such to Western eyes, structures of governance already exist within developing countries. Rooted in day-to-day, ground-level realities are various norms and values around accountability, collaboration and decision-making, often in the form of highly developed institutions. Rather than transplanting or building from scratch a preconceived model of Western democracy, with attendant regulatory frameworks, bureaucratic bodies, etc., agencies need to ‘go with the grain’ of the society in order to improve governance. This is the challenging idea at the heart of the APPP2: Kelsall3 argues the slow progress of the ‘good governance’ agenda is a result of Western institutions and approaches sitting ill alongside certain traditional core ideas and values in sub-Saharan Africa4.

The scope of governance work also needs to expand to take into account the central role of knowledge. One way of understanding this comes from the New Synthesis Project, who argue that systems for ‘exploitation’ (utilisation of current knowledge) need to be balanced with those for ‘exploration’ (looking for new possibilities) in order to create robust governance. The former involves hierarchy, third-party enforcement, institutional rules, generalised trust and reciprocity; the latter might include network structures and independent institutions like think-tanks, universities and an unbiased mass media5.

Further development in this area may help to close the divide between knowledge-based approaches to policy-making – the idea of making the ‘best’ policy – and representative and accountable policy-making. This is a divide embodied by the ‘technocratic’ mould of policy-making, whereby often well-meaning professionally trained groups effectively subvert national structures of accountability and representation in order to ensure a ‘well-informed’ policy is created. However, there is clearly a long way to go in terms of improving our understanding of the relevant institutions, and also in terms of public attitudes towards government: regional differences may be seen as valuable ‘variation’ by some but as a ‘postcode lottery’ by others, and what one may argue is ensuring redundancy others may see as inefficiency and waste. These are not just issues of perception either, as central government’s role in promoting equity and fairness could become harder if local variation is required for effective policy.

Finally, the critical role of trust and social capital may imply that countries with less of this, for example with high inequality, will be less able to govern complex problems, or may have further to go before beginning to address them. Alternatively, it could mean such countries are more likely to encounter them (e.g. where there are diverging perspectives and goals). Perhaps, as trust and capital are built around a problem, solution or specific issue, it may become less ‘complex,’ as solutions become institutionalised. It could be that increased acknowledgement of complex problems could itself be a sign of increased societal segmentation. The direction of causation is not clear, but this suggests a range of contextual variables to consider as foundations for the good governance of certain problems.

Next and final part of this series (section 4.2): Implications for aid agencies.

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. ( Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

References and notes:

  1. Jessop, R. (2003). ‘The Governance of Complexity and the Complexity of Governance: Preliminary Remarks on Some Problems and Limits of Economic Governance.’ Lancaster: Department of Sociology, Lancaster University.
  2. Africa Power and Politics Programme (ODI).
  3. Kelsall, T. (2008). ‘Going with the Grain in African Development?’ Africa Power and Politics Programme Discussion Paper 1. London: ODI.
  4. This chimes with the call to approach problems by working with existing emergent, self-organised structures. For sub-Saharan Africa, the priority needs to be taking beliefs around power, accountability and social morality, such as the role of extended families and ‘big man’ paradigms of leadership, as the starting point for improving governance. The five-year APPP is investigating ways policies can go with the grain in this way, by building governance around these norms and institutions.
  5. NS6 (2010). ‘A New Synthesis of Public Administration: Compilation of Literature Scans.’ Ottawa: NS6.

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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