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Christian Bason

Where is the humility in policy development?

By June 22nd 2012

This article has previously been published in the Danish weekly, Mandag Morgen.

I recently heard a minister say that simply passing a new law in Parliament by no means guarantees change in the real world. If we know that policies don’t necessarily work just because a decision has been taken, why do we keep pretending otherwise?

When Aarhus University anthropologist, Nina Holm Vohnsen, defended an award-winning PhD project on policy implementation, she highlighted that many policy developers develop new initiatives to suit a reality that does not actually exist. In her thesis, she describes this as developing a policy to “Ground Zero”: a completely empty place on society’s map where pretty much nothing exists already and where a new or amended policy can perform its work unimpeded.

The reality is obviously different.

People – citizens, companies, other public organisations and institutions – are busy with a whole lot of things that make the world complex. In fact, they are so busy that the interdependencies between actors, activities and consequences are almost impossible to decipher. Just think about all of the administrative levels, organisations, roles and people involved in the health or education sector. In reality, policy developers often give up in the face of an obscure and complex reality, and return to the safe notion of “Ground Zero” –  even when they know, deep-down, that it doesn’t exist.

This could be forgiven if there were no helpful tools available. But there are. An intelligent approach to effective policy development requires three things:

  • - That we genuinely want to understand what is required in order for a policy – regulation, expenditure, service, etc. – to work in practice;
  • - That we acknowledge that the reality is more complex than we might initially think;
  • - That we adopt an approach to policy development which takes the complexity seriously and which reflects a humble consideration for what has a realistic potential to make a difference.

In 2007, the Welsh complexity researcher, David Snowden, wrote an article in Harvard Business Review which became one of the most quoted pieces that year. In it, he presented a model for decision-making under different circumstances: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. The key distinction that policy developers should be aware of concerns the difference between complicated situations and complex situations.

A complicated challenge could, for example, be: “How do we build a bridge across the Oresund?” Although undoubtedly a challenging task, it nevertheless involves relatively well-known parameters. We know the strength of various steel and concrete constructions, etc.; and we can calculate which solutions will carry a certain amount of traffic. In complicated situations, the approach to problem solving involves the following activities: examining the situation, making an analysis, and developing a solution. In other words, we can find a solution providing we have enough bright minds and a very powerful calculator. Coincidentally, this is often the way we develop polices when we feel we are doing a thorough job.

A complex challenge could be the question of how we get more young people to complete a youth education programme. This is a social problem with a wide range of participants, organisations, institutions, etc., in which young people’s experiences, values and norms also affect their behaviour. The interdependency between various participants and people is significant, and we don’t necessarily know all of the relationships and interactions. Which initiatives will actually get more young people to choose and complete a course, and which may have the opposite effect, or have no effect at all?

According to David Snowden, complex situations involve the following approach: test different solutions, record the effects, and develop the best possible solution. Test again, and again.

Note the reverse sequence of the development process: because we don’t already understand the connection between the causes (solutions) and the consequences (effects), we need to feel our way forward. We need to start with provisional suggested solutions and see what happens. This approach to policy development differs radically to the one we would normally adopt; developing policy under complex conditions thereby presupposes a considerable amount of humility for how much knowledge one actually has in advance, even as an expert. This requires the ability and courage to introduce the world to initiatives which have yet to be perfected, and then to expect feedback from the people affected by them. Finally, it presupposes that we systematically examine what works – and are equally systematic about taking the consequences of the feedback we get.

In a future characterised by a huge amount of pressure on public resources, and with limited progress in the most important policy areas affecting our societies – health, social affairs, employment and education, to name some of the most important ones – we must become much better at developing policies in areas involving great complexity.

I would therefore like to invite you to join a new cross-public sector network on humble policy development. It could have been called “The network against Ground Zero”, but I would rather call it “The Alliance for policy development that works”

Why don’t you join me?

Comments

  1. Weekly bits of interest – 25 June 2012 | Public Sector Innovation Toolkit kl. 07.06 25/06/2012

    [...] Christian Bason of Denmark’s MindLab advocates that policy makers adopt a different approach f…. ”Note the reverse sequence of the development process: because we don’t already understand the connection between the causes (solutions) and the consequences (effects), we need to feel our way forward. We need to start with provisional suggested solutions and see what happens. This approach to policy development differs radically to the one we would normally adopt” 1 [...]

  2. Millie kl. 08.49 25/06/2012

    Christian
    great post! in UNDP we recently had a 2-day session w/day on exactly these issues… (i wrote up a quick piece afterwards just to make sure that we dont forget some of the more complex points http://europeandcis.undp.org/blog/2012/06/19/complexity-and-development/ :)

    We are also tinkering with lead user methodology, and trying to ‘translate it’ for use in development (by Eric von Hippel from MIT).

  3. Graham Leicester kl. 14.51 25/06/2012

    Good to see this focus Christian. Close to my heart – as a former ‘policymaker’ now working on the ‘policymaker of the future’ programme and ‘policy learning’ amongst other things (see eg http://www.internationalfuturesforum.com/projects.php?pid=22). Count me in. Graham

  4. Mark Wilson kl. 15.05 25/06/2012

    An excellent article. This is the reason why ‘evidence based’ policy should be the norm. Far too often policy is based on little or no evidence (dogma); or a policy is decided upon by those who then seek the evidence which is duly created by ‘experts’ paid by the policy creator to support it.

  5. Sanja Bojanic kl. 21.42 25/06/2012

    Excellent article on a very important subject close to my heart and mind :-). I recently wrote on “Public Administration Reform – is complexity an ally or an enemy?” and your booklet “How Public Design” was inspiring. Keep up the good work and count me in on this one. Best, Sanja

  6. Christian Bason kl. 01.30 26/06/2012

    Dear all, just wanted to thank for such positive and thoughtful remarks, and additional links. I am seeing how the membership potential evolves and will return with some ideas about how such an Alliance could work, after the summer holidays.

  7. Jose-Angel Zubiaur kl. 14.33 26/06/2012

    Excelente artículo sentando bases innovativas para una reforma de la administración pública, tan compleja en los países del sur de Europa. As Bojanic wrote, keep up the good work and count me in on this one.

  8. Theodore Taptiklis kl. 23.44 25/07/2012

    Christian,

    I think in using the word “humility” you put your finger on something really important. Humility is not simply an attitude but a deep human value. It also underlies real curiosity…being open to new possibilities, even within oneself. The work of our group begins with creating the circumstances in which those possibilities can appear, and are crucially about enabling people to learn the skills of being together from which previously unimagined ‘experiments’ can arise. Keep me posted on your network…it resonates with our public sector activities here in New Zealand.

  9. Innovation machine helps New York schools « MindBlog kl. 14.14 22/10/2012

    [...] couple of months ago I blogged on humble policy development,[ http://mindblog.dk/en/2012/06/22/where-is-the-humility-in-policy-development/ about how we often [...]

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