Complexity Theory Public Sector Research Paper

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Complexity Theory in the Public Sector

The objective of this work is to examine complexity theory in the public sector. According to Paul Cairney in the work entitled "Complexity Theory in Public Policy" the term complexity "has relevance to a wide range of theories in public policy which describe the replacement of the simple "clubby days' of early post-war politics by complex relationships at multiple levels of government and among a huge politically active population." (2010, p.1) The focus on complexity, according to Cairney (2010) is "indirect and vague." (p.l) It is of the nature that indicates that there should be a shift in analysis "from individuals parts of a political system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic behavior that cannot be broken down into the actions of its constituent parts." (Cairney, 2010, p.1)

Defining Complexity Theory

Complexity theory may be viewed as a manner of thinking and a method used to see the world. (Mittleton-Kelly, 2003, p.26) According to Sanderson (2006) complexity theory developed as a result of what was viewed as being stable. (p.117, paraphrased) Mitchell (2009) as cited in Cairney (2010) held that Complexity Theory represented a "revolutionary break from the reductionist approach to science." (p.2) The approach within Complexity Theory is such that attempts to explain "why complex or system-wide behavior emerges from the interaction between 'large collections of simpler components." (Cairney, 2010, p.3) Cairney (2010) states that "different accounts identify different factors or place more emphasis on some at the expenses of others." ( p.3) Cairney notes that there are variations that make the theory such that identifying the key tenets of the theory is difficult. Cairney states that there are six common assumptions on how complex systems behave and how these systems should be studied including the following assumptions:

(1) A complex system cannot be explained merely by breaking it down into its component parts because a key element of system dynamics is the manner in which those elements interact with each other. Instead, we must shift our analysis to the system as a whole; as networks of elements that interact, share information, adapt, and combine to produce systemic behavior. (Cairney, 2010, p.4)

(2) The behavior of complex systems is difficult to predict. Complex systems exhibit non-linear dynamics produced by feedback loops in which some forms of energy or action are dampened (negative feedback) while others are amplified (positive feedback). As a result, small actions can have large effects and large actions can have small effects. This suggests that periods of equilibrium are also unstable because a small input of energy can have a large effect. This can be linked to the term 'phase transitions', which describes the tipping point at which dramatic change results from the marginal effect of energy (such as when a liquid becomes gas).(Cairney, 2010, p.4)

(3) Complex systems are particularly sensitive to initial conditions which produce a long-term momentum, suggesting that any small measure in initial measurement, or failure to account for the effect of seemingly insignificant factors will produce major errors in predictions of future behavior (the 'butterfly effect'). (Cairney, 2010, p.4)

(4) They exhibit emergence, or behavior that evolves from the interaction between elements at a local level rather than central direction. This makes the system difficult to control. (Cairney, 2010, p.4) They may contain 'strange attractors' or demonstrate extended regularities of behavior (Bovaird, 2008: 320 cited in: (Cairney, 2010, p.4)

(5) They may therefore exhibit periods of 'punctuated equilibria' - in which long periods of stability are interrupted by short bursts of change - such as when new species emerge suddenly in the process of evolution. (Cairney, 2010, p.4)

(6) The various problems that complexity theory seeks to address -- such as predicting climate change, earthquakes, the spread of disease among populations, the processing of DNA within the body, how the brain works, the growth of computer technology and artificial intelligence, and the behavior of social and political systems -- can only be solved by interdisciplinary scientific groups. (Mitchell, 2009 cited in: Cairney, 2010, p.4)

II. Main Strands of Complexity Theory

It is cited in the work of Mitleton-Kelly (2003) that it is necessary to be cautious about the value of complexity theory to the social sciences because human behavior of the capacity to reflect and make deliberative choices and decisions among the alternative paths of action makes the social world a different object of study than the natural or physical world." (Cairney, 2010, p.5) Cairney states that the complexity and public policy literature is comprised by "two main strands" including: (1) a relatively small strand that engages directly with the complexity theory when analyzing public policy; and (2) a much wider range of studies, central to the public policy literature that highlights complex system characteristics without necessarily using the language of complexity." (Cairney, 2010, p.6)

The work of Buuren (nd) entitled "Knowledge Management for Governance" states that recently "a complexity view upon knowledge management is developed in which it has to do with creating the right conditions for knowledge development in situations of non-linearity and self-organization." (Burren, nd, p.4) Centric to this body of knowledge is the "argument that actors (including individuals and organizations) function within a complex and dynamic environment and have to find a sufficient level of adaptability, in order to manage the continuing flows of positive and negative feedback." (p.5) It is necessary that in the management and continuing flows of positive feedback being managed. The three perspectives of knowledge management are listed and described in the following table labeled Figure 1in the present study and which includes the following:

Figure 1

Three Perspectives of Knowledge Management

Source: Burren (nd)

Stated as the reason for the quick development of complexity theory are the following reasons:

(1) Ontological changes: human induced changes in the nature of the real world, proceeding at unprecedented rates and scales and also resulting in growing connectedness and interdependence at many levels;

(2) Epistemological changes: changes in our understanding of the world related to the modern scientific awareness of the behavior of complex systems, including the realization that unpredictability and surprise may be built in the fabric of reality (…);

(3) Changes in the nature of decision-making: in many parts of the world, a more participatory style of decision-making is gaining space, superseding the technocratic and the authoritarian styles. This, together with the widening acceptance of additional criteria, such as the environment, human rights, gender, and others, as well as the emergence of new social actors such as the non-governmental organizations and transnational companies, leads to an increase in the number of dimensions used to define issues, problems, and solutions and hence to higher complexity." (Burren, nd, p.3)

(4) Changes in the nature of decision-making: in many parts of the world, a more participatory style of decision-making is gaining space, superseding the technocratic and the authoritarian styles. This, together with the widening acceptance of additional criteria, such as the environment, human rights, gender, and others, as well as the emergence of new social actors such as the non-governmental organizations and transnational companies, leads to an increase in the number of dimensions used to define issues, problems, and solutions and hence to higher complexity." (Burren, nd, p.4)

Burren writes that the notion of complexity "is frequently linked with the notion of coevolution. When our environment is continuously changing, as a consequence of others and our acts, we can only survive in such an environment by seeking a sufficient level of fitness." (Burren, nd, p.5) In other words, it becomes necessary to adapt to the environmental conditions and to maintain a level of uniqueness that sufficiently delivers added value to the environment. (, paraphrased) Complexity theory study may provide contributions to the understanding of strategic management in public organizations as managers are able to bring about a reduction in risks for new initiatives through strategic alliances and their existing skills can be patched "into new combinations." (Agaard, nd, p.3) Complexity, according to Burren (nd) is of the nature that: "…generally exhibit a number of attributes that make them more difficult to understand and manage than simple and complicated systems' (Gallopin 2001: 225 cited in Burrren, nd, p.4) The important characteristics of complex phenomenon are described in the work of Burren as follows:

(1) Multiplicity of legitimate perspectives (reality is ambiguous: there are more, valid interpretations possible. Attention for this diversity in perspectives and interests of different stakeholders is needed);

(2) Non-linearity (relations in a systems are not linear. A given action can lead to several possible outcomes, some of which are disproportionate in size to the action itself. Through multiple interactions, organizations are capable of many responses that are complex and unpredictable, leading to many outcomes);

(3) Emergence and self-organization (novel patterns of order can spontaneously emerge from the interactions between the elements of the system);

(4) Multiplicity of scales and interconnectivity (many complex systems are hierarchic: systems are both subsystem and supra-system; all parts are connected and…[continue]

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