How does ‘complexity thinking’ improve our understanding of politics and policymaking?

How does complexity thinking interact with policy analysis? Last for today from Professor Paul Cairney.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Presentation to ‘A jurisprudence of complexity? Rethinking the relationship between law and society’, University of Lancaster, 25th September 2015

It is customary to describe complexity theory as new, exciting, and interdisciplinary. Its advocates suggest that it offers a new way of seeing the world, a scientific paradigm to replace ‘reductionism’, a way for many academic disciplines to use the same language to explain key processes, and the potential for an impressively broad and rich empirical base. Robert Geyer and I explore these themes in the introduction and conclusion to our edited Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy.

In this short discussion, I present a more critical discussion of these high expectations, examining how they translate into something new for political and policy science, and asking: what does complexity theory offer policy studies? I suggest that its focus on greater interdisciplinarity is potentially misleading, that its theoretical appeal…

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Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

Key issues on “evidence-based policy” by Cairney.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

In other posts on evidence-based policymaking I’m critical of this idea: the main barriers to getting evidence into policy relate to the presentation of scientific evidence, timing, and the scientific skills of policymakers. You may overcome these barriers without closing the ‘evidence-policy gap’ and, for example, spend too much effort trying to reduce scientific uncertainty on the size of a policy problem without addressing ambiguityand the tendency of policymakers to be willing to consider only a limited range of solutions.

In this post, I try to reframe this discussion by generally describing the EBPM process as a series of political choices made as much by scientists as policymakers. The choices associated primarily with policymakers are also made by academics, and they relate to inescapable trade-offs rather than policymaking problems that can somehow be solved with more evidence.

In this context, a key role of policy analysis is to…

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What is Policy?

“What is policy?” Paul Cairney’s useful introductory materials continues (or, starts I suppose this appears to be episode 1).

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

what is policy

(you can stream the podcast here or right click and save this link)

The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. This sort of definition produces more questions:

  • Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? An unfulfilled promise may not always seem like policy.
  • Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? A policy outcome may not resemble the initial policy aims.
  • What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Many individuals, groups and organisations influence policy and help carry it out.
  • Does public policy include what policymakers do not do. Policy is about power, which is often exercised to keep important issues off…

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking

More from Professor Cairney’s “1000 words” series on policy analysis, this time, the psychology of policymaking.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

(podcast download)

Psychology is at the heart of policymaking, but the literature on psychology is not always at the heart of policy theory. Most theories identify ‘bounded rationality’ which, on its own, is little more than a truism: people do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, all possibilities, all solutions, or anticipate all consequences of their actions. Consequently, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics – perhaps to produce ‘good-enough’ decisions. This is where psychology comes in, to:

  1. Describe the thought processes that people use to turn a complex world into something simple enough to understand and/ or respond to; and
  2. To compare types of thought process, such as (a) goal-oriented and reasoned, thoughtful behaviour and (b) the intuitive, gut, emotional or other heuristics we use to process and act on information quickly.

Where does policy theory come in? It seeks to situate…

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Institutions and New Institutionalism

A cogent, accessible discussion of “institutions” and “new institutionalism” from political science. These have been key concepts in my intellectual development and work.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

UPP box 4.1 institutions

(podcast download)

The study of public policy would be incomplete without an understanding of policymaking institutions. The study of political science would also be incomplete without turning our understanding of terms such as ‘institutions’ upside down. ‘Institution’ may in the past have referred to organizations such as legislatures, courts and executives. With ‘new institutionalism’, it refers to two factors: regular patterns of behaviour; and the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence such behaviour.

These rules can be formal, or enshrined in a constitution, legislation or regulations:

  • The constitutional nature of political systems – such as confederal or federal; federal or unitary; presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential; unicameral or bicameral; containing constitutional courts; or holding procedures for regular referendums.
  • Their operating procedures – including electoral systems, party systems, rules of government formation and executive–legislative relations, the role of public bureaucracies, and the extent to which group-government relations are ‘institutionalised’…

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These complaints about ignoring science seem biased and naïve – and too easy to dismiss

More from political scientist Paul Cairney, this time on evidence based-policy & its disconnects.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

This is one of two posts on the use of scientific evidence in environmental policy (a broad term which can include climate change, food, land management, and energy policy). In this one I insult some of the people reacting to the Scottish Government’s decision on GM. In the next one, I present preliminary evidence on a systematic review of the use of evidence in environmental policy.

The Scottish Government recently decided to reinforce a moratorium on the use of GM crops in Scotland. It produced a strong response from many individual scientists, and groups representing scientists, which seems predictable enough. That’s what you would expect some scientists to do if you don’t act solely on their advice.

What I didn’t quite expect was a more general, and often hyperbolic, criticism by non-scientist commentators about the failings of policymakers to listen to scientists.

The general problem for non-scientist commentators is…

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Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis?

Another excellent post on Kingdon’s “multiple streams model” of policy making.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Cairney jones psj pic

John Kingdon published his Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in 1984. What has happened since then? Put simply, it is now a classic text, and it took off in a way that Kingdon did not expect. Put less simply, it contributed to the intellectual development of policy theory and inspired a huge number of studies under the banner of ‘multiple streams analysis’ (or the ‘multiple streams approach’, MSA).

In our PSJ article, Michael Jones and I sum up this theoretical and empirical contribution and give some advice about how to produce effective MSA analysis.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 1. ‘Universal’ concepts.

Kingdon identifies many elements of the policy process that we describe as ‘universal’ because they are abstract enough to apply to any case study.

  1. Ambiguity and competition for attention.
  • There are many ways to understand and frame any policy problem, but the policy agenda can…

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Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis?

Kingdonian analysis/MSA has been a key element of my work in political ecology. Some excellent pieces by Paul Cairney that I will be reblogging, starting with this one.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Cairney jones psj pic

John Kingdon published his Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in 1984. What has happened since then? Put simply, it is now a classic text, and it took off in a way that Kingdon did not expect. Put less simply, it contributed to the intellectual development of policy theory and inspired a huge number of studies under the banner of ‘multiple streams analysis’ (or the ‘multiple streams approach’, MSA).

In our PSJ article, Michael Jones and I sum up this theoretical and empirical contribution and give some advice about how to produce effective MSA analysis.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 1. ‘Universal’ concepts.

Kingdon identifies many elements of the policy process that we describe as ‘universal’ because they are abstract enough to apply to any case study.

  1. Ambiguity and competition for attention.
  • There are many ways to understand and frame any policy problem, but the policy agenda can…

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Now published: Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Finally, the first paper is out from our Leverage Points project. It’s led by Dave Abson, and lays out a conceptual framework and research agenda, all around the notion of “deep leverage points”. Please share it through your networks.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.31.56.pngThe paper draws on Donella Meadows’ notion of “deep leverage points” – places to intervene in a system where adjustments can make a big difference to the overall outcomes. Arguably, sustainability science desperately needs such leverage points. Despite years of rhetoric on sustainability science bringing about “transformation”, the big picture is still pretty dull: globally at least, there is no indication that we’re starting to turn around the patterns of exponential growth that characterize our era. A potential reason is that much of sustainability science has focused on parameters and feedbacks, rather than system design or “intent” (see above) — when actually, it’s changing a system’s design…

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New book/book chapter (and other new pieces) out!

At long last, my book chapter on the MST (Landless Rural Workers’ Movement in Brazil) is out, as part of the volume Subsistence Under Capitalism!

  • M. J. Chappell. “Alternative agriculture, the vernacular, and the MST: Re-creating subsistence as the sustainable development of human rights.” (2016). Chapter 9, pp. 254-297 in J. Murton, D. Bavington, and C. Dokis (eds.), Subsistence Under Capitalism: Nature and Economy in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Rural, Wildland and Resource Studies Series. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

“The question of how to provide for so-called “sustainable development” is increasingly coming up against similar questions of how to address the global problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental toxification and rapid depletion of natural resources. Despite commitments from world governments to halving the number of hungry in the world by 2015, the number of acutely malnourished people rose past 1 billion during the 2009 food crisis, wiping out much of the modest progress of the past decades, and not including the continuing plight of the 2-3 billion humans suffering from micronutrient deficiencies (“Hidden Hunger”). Even amidst worldwide production sufficient to feed the present and likely future global population, the focus of governmental rhetoric and much of academic discourse remains on production and yield, even among many environmentalists and ecologists who look to further intensification and “land sparing” to generate space for sustainable agricultural development. In contrast, in the present work, I propose an approach to sustainable development focusing on equality rather than production, the provision of human rights rather than economic development, and the integration of agroecological agricultural methods with subsistence and locally-focused agriculture rather than export and cash crops. These ideas will be examined specifically through a case-study of the literature dealing with Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement.”

My thanks to my dear friend Dean Bavington for the original invitation to the workshop, and to our colleagues and his fellow editors, Jamie Murton (@JamieMurton) and Carly Dokis for shepherding this through!

As you may have surmised, the full book is available from the usual suspects, as well as through the publisher’s website.

Other fantastic entries (out of ALL of the fantastic entries) in the book include “The Seeds of Calculability: The Home Farms Experiment on and off the Books,” by Sarah J. Martin (@eatingpolitics), “Rural Households, Subsistence, and Environment on the Canadian Shield, 1901-1940,” by  Ruth W. Sandwell (which includes some fascinating exploration of rural-urban patterns in Canada that deserve continued examination and thought about urbanization more generally), “Aboriginal Subsistence Practices in an “Isolated” Region
of Northern Alberta” by Clinton N. Westman, “Working with Fish in the Shadows of Sustainability,” by my friend Jennifer Lee Johnson and her co-author Bakaaki Robert, “Rethinking the Legacies of “Subsistence Thinking”” by the always-provocative Michael J. Hathaway, and  the immensely interesting and important piece “In Defence of Vernacular Ways” by
Sajay Samuel.

Get your copy today! 

I should also mention two other pieces we have in press:

  • M. E. Schipanski, G. K. MacDonald, S. Rosenzweig, M. J. Chappell, E. M. Bennett, R. Bezner Kerr, J. Blesh, T. Crews, L. Drinkwater, J. G. Lundgren, and C. Schnarr. (In press). “Realizing resilient food systems.” BioScience. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biw052.
    • Written with colleagues based on an Ecological Society of America Ignite session: “Food systems are under increasing pressure to produce sufficient food for the global population, decrease the environmental impacts of production, and buffer against complex global change. Food security also remains elusive for many populations worldwide. Greater emphasis on food system resilience could reduce these vulnerabilities. We outline integrated strategies that together could foster food system resilience across scales, including (a) integrating gender equity and social justice into food security research and initiatives, (b) increasing the use of ecological processes rather than external inputs for crop production, (c) fostering regionalized food distribution networks and waste reduction, and (d) linking human nutrition and agricultural production policies. Enhancing social–ecological links and fostering adaptive capacity are essential to cope with short-term volatility and longer-term global change pressures. Finally, we highlight regional case studies that have enhanced food system resilience for vulnerable populations. Efforts in these areas could have dramatic impacts on global food system resilience.”
    • The first piece I know of to quantitatively show the neglect of issues of power, equity, justice, and gender in the food security literature.
  • M. J. Chappell, J. R. Moore, and A. A. Heckelman. (In press.) “Participation in a city food security program may be linked to higher ant alpha and beta diversity: An exploratory case from Belo Horizonte, Brazil.” Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2016.1160020.
    • At long last, based on my work in Brazil in the ’00s. With fellow AgroEcoPeeps James Moore and Amber Heckelman. We show that Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s food security programs may have also had positive conservation effects: “This paper reports the results of a case study examining the connections between municipal food security policy and biodiversity in the region of Belo Horizonte, a populous city in the heavily fragmented Brazilian cerrado (savannah)/Atlantic forest transition region. Belo Horizonte, through its Secretariat of Food and Nutrition Security (SMASAN), has generated increased food security in the city, in part by economically supporting local small farmers. Farmers’ economic security has been previously linked to their agricultural practices and sustainability; thus SMASAN’s programs potentially affect biodiversity in the region’s agricultural matrix and rainforest fragments through their work with farmers. In order to examine this dynamic, we compared ground-foraging ant diversity on four “SMASAN” and three “non-SMASAN” farms and adjoining forest fragments. Supported by data from farmer interviews, sampling in 2005 and 2006 indicated SMASAN farms had: (a) higher alpha and beta diversity; and (b) potentially greater overlap between species found on-farm and in adjacent forest fragments. This case study may be the first directly linking biodiversity conservation with food security and changes in local food policy institutions, emphasizing the importance of an approach integrating politics and ecology, and the potential for human well-being and conservation to go hand-in-hand.”

Happy reading!

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