Simple Thoughts On Policy Complexity

Friday, December 1, 2017
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Yes, the world is complex.

Pursuing a given public policy objective (i.e. an outcome) brings that complexity into view; and bringing that view into focus, by gathering information and weighing evidence and opinion, means drawing boundaries around the issue(s) in imperfect ways.

This imprecision has real world consequences. Draw the boundaries too wide and it can produce paralysis by analysis, draw them too narrow and you can end up with governance by gut feeling. Neither of which are ideal, and both can have profoundly negative consequences.

Complexity is really about spillover from one policy domain to another. Determining a logical order or hierarchy isn't always possible because none of the issues can be isolated from those that are adjacent. This complexity is further complicated by the fact that spillover is both omni-present and omni-directional and in a constant state of flux.

This leads me to conclude that the crux of the challenge facing policy makers is calibration; it's about knowing who and what to include and, where where to draw the lines, understanding the inherent consequences and trade-offs, and being willing to accept them.

When trying to solve for especially pernicious problems this becomes exponentially harder because the conventional wisdom is that their solutions lie in the innovation of the adjacent possible (i.e. somewhere in the messy spillover). The same conventional wisdom argues that you ought to spend 95% of your time defining the problem and 5% solving it. That means not only are you actively pursuing work in the messier parts of the problem set you are also spending the bulk of you time calibrating and re-calibrating within it as the landscape continues to shift around you.

I guess its not so so simple after all.