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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?

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