Unpacking Complexity in Policy and Politics: Insights from ECPR Panel Discussions

There is no denying that we live in complex times, featuring a global pandemic, climate change, and structural inequality. Complex problems are often incredibly difficult to address. Policy makers, practitioners and scholars have known this for a long time. In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term ‘wicked problems’ to describe problems that were so complicated and ambiguous that those involved could not even agree on what the problem exactly was, and how a good solution would look like. Twenty years later, Jan Kooiman argued that the governance systems in place to address these complex problems are equally complex.

Yes, policy problems are complex. So what?

We are not asking this question out of apathy. Instead, we want to find out what it actually means to call policy problems ‘complex’. What difference does it make to those involved to call a problem complex? How do they make sense of complexity and deal with it? In what ways can we understand and study complexity? And is it possible to somehow solve complex problems? These were the kind of questions we addressed during this year’s section ‘Navigating Complexity in Policy and Politics: Prospects and Challenges’, which we co-convened at the annual ECPR conference 2021.

Panels explored complex problems in different policy areas and contexts including ecological sustainability, criminal justice and urban transformations. We have learnt, for example, how Roma migrant women navigate and reorganise their everyday lives when their husbands ‘disappear’ to jail, leaving them in a tremendous state of uncertainty posed by highly discriminatory criminal justice system. Another panel speaker revealed the practical consequences of the complex child protection system in Chile: this system led to tragic policy failures that destroyed or even ended children’s lives. Several presentations explained how governance systems ‘locked in’ the status quo continued to frustrate policies and efforts to promote sustainability.

This year’s section also featured a roundtable on Nicole Curato’s recent book Democracy in Times of Misery. We had the opportunity to ask Curato questions about her ethnographic work in the Philippines, and the ways she uses normative political theory to make sense of the emerging democratic practices in the aftermath of natural disasters. As we heard from Curato and other contributors of the roundtable, one key challenge for democracy we identified is to listen to the ‘unspeakable tragedies’ taking place in the world and celebrate the ‘humble victories’ through which citizens reclaim public space.

What emerges as an important avenue for better understanding complexity both from the panel discussions and the roundtable on Curato’s book is the need to focus more on the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Shifting the focus from the trade-offs policy makers face when dealing with complex policy problems to the ways citizens experience complexity can offer novel ways of comprehending and addressing complexity. One of the panel speakers explored how citizens make sense of austerity and the ways this influences their political views. Another panel speaker explained how a focus on people’s experiences of the area in which they live can help understand how to best give shape to economic development policies, such as the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda.

Similarly, a focus on the everyday practices of policy makers can cast new light on how they deal with complexity. One panel speaker for instance explained why they publicly remain proponents of collaboration to deal with ‘wicked problems’, despite their privately held ‘wicked thoughts’ about the frustrations and limitations they experience in practice. If you must know, they do it to get access to other actors, build alliances, infiltrate networks, or channel conflict. So, by acknowledging the complexity of policy problems, policy makers can justify inaction or reinforce the status quo.

Methodological innovations, such as ‘Trajectory-Based Qualitative Comparative Analysis’, can help to trace the complexity of urban transformations. While action research can help to foster joint learning about how to work with, rather than control or resolve complexity. One participant wrote in her paper: “We are drowning in the ocean of theories and case studies of water governance, but why does it not match up with the successful implementation of those goals?” There is an important role here for policy analysts to foster learning and change in collaboration with stakeholders. In fact, many presentations demonstrated significant (untapped) potential for helping to harness the complex problems they identified.

We might say therefore that, like the weather, many participants were talking about complexity but not doing anything about it. Indeed, much remains to be done. As the systematic literature review by one participant demonstrated, there has been an explosive growth of publications on complexity and sustainability over the past 15 years. However, studies and disciplines are very fragmented, most featuring a siloed approach in their respective fields and sub-fields. Ironically, one might add, given the emphasis in these studies on the importance of integrated approaches to dealing with complexity. We need to develop more of a shared language and way of thinking about complexity.

We might even say that, like the weather, many participants were talking about complexity but not doing anything with it. Nearly everyone evoked the notion ‘wicked problems’ to frame their research, but relatively few actually used looked at the world in terms of complexity. Complexity theory is one of the major innovations of the past decades in the Social Sciences and has also gotten a foothold in the field of Public Policy. It views the world in terms of complexity that cannot be controlled or known objectively. Like the flight patterns of a flock of birds, the world is unpredictable and emergent. We need to accept this and study the ‘complex adaptive systems’ that take shape (and are constantly changing) in interaction between webs of interdependent actors. This, again, asks for stakeholders to engage in ongoing learning and adaptation as they collaboratively confront the complex problems they face in everyday practice. 

These are only some of our reflections and notes on this year’s highly engaging panels on Navigating Complexity.  We invite you to join the Standing Group in further developing our understanding of what it means to call policy problems ‘complex’ and what to do with this.

Koen Bartels, Selen Ercan and John Boswell

Co-Conveners ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis

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