Complexity, Institutions and Public Policy: Agile decision-making in a turbulent world, by Graham Room

Edward Elgar, 2011, vii + 383pp, hbk, 0 85793 263 1, £95

This is one of those rare books which studies the deeper foundations of theory and practice: not just a particular social policy field, and not even the way in which social policy is either made or studied, but rather the nature of the world in which social policy is made – its institutional, social, and personal realities, and the dynamic relationships between them – and the ways in which social policy-making should therefore be carried out. As Room puts the questions which he asks himself:

How can we best conceptualise [the] dynamic processes of socio-economic change? … how can we model these dynamics empirically, as processes that are endogenous rather than merely the response to exogenous shocks? … what analytical tools … can be made available to policy-makers for the purpose of monitoring and steering these processes of transformation? (pp.4-5).

In answer to these questions the book discusses the policy process as a non-linear one which

involves feedback loops which bring into play a variety of actors who set about reshaping the policy intervention in light of their own strategic objectives … This is policy-making played out on a bouncy castle … Any policy is an intervention in a tangled web of institutions that have developed incrementally over extended periods of time and that give each policy context its own specificity. … Policy terrains and policy effects are path dependent. (p.7)

So policy processes can be both non-linear (containing feed-back loops) and path-dependent ( – their history determines to some extent where they go next), and it is in this complex context, which is also a highly turbulent one, that evidence-based policy decisions have to be made.

The first part of the book is theoretical, and Room draws on numerous disciplines to build a conceptual structure. He employs biological and mathematical sciences to understand the economy as a complex adaptive system which is nowhere near to equilibrium; and sociology and political science to understand institutions as diverse and dynamic moral communities subject to change by institutional entrepreneurs when public dissatisfaction opens up new political possibilities. A final theoretical chapter employs biological science to understand the agile agents who operate in far from equilibrium complex systems.

The second part of the book relates the first part’s conceptual structures to the empirical social scientific methods familiar to students of social policy. Room applies the mathematics of complexity, chaos, and emergent order, to combinations of complex social systems and networks, and then to social mobility and inequality. He finds that

egalitarian efforts by the state do not reverse inequalities so much as mute their harshness … As structural change alters the landscape of positional competition, it is … in general those who are already advantaged who are best placed to take advantage of the new opportunities and to avoid the new insecurities (pp.209-210).

Part 3 employs the understanding of the policy context outlined in part 1, and the methods discussed in part 2, to understand the policy-maker as a ‘tuner’, an energiser, and a steward, and to discuss particular policy areas. Of particular interest to readers of this Newsletter might be the chapter on poverty and social exclusion, which employs mathematical modelling to understand social polarisation, understands households as agile institutional entrepreneurs negotiating their way around the social policy landscape (of education, benefits, employment, etc.), and recognises that in the employment market ‘agile creativity accrues disproportionately to the advantaged’ (p.265).

After chapters on the knowledge economy and the current financial crisis, the final chapter offers a policy tool-kit for agile policy-makers, and examples of how the tools might be used.

This is a most fascinating book. Just as Aristotle wrote his Metaphysics (‘after-physics’) after his Physics, so Room has written a ‘metasocialpolicy’ which will act as a groundwork for future study of social policy and for policy-making. But perhaps we also need another layer of analysis. The book is about the evolution of complex adaptive systems, but the first chapter mentions a different kind of change: the earthquake – a sudden shifting of the tectonic plates. Scientific progress is mainly evolutionary in character, but occasionally there is a paradigm shift: the emergence of a new way of seeing, a shift in the conceptual tectonic plates. Our welfare state, in most of its aspects, is still fashioned for modernity: for a stable industrial nuclear-family society; but our world is less and less like that. Social reality is now ‘liquid’ (Zygmunt Bauman), but we are still waiting for the social policy earthquake which will deliver the necessary social infrastructure. It is the science of paradigm change that we require, and a new vision of social policy which will both serve and generate further liquid social reality. Strange though it might seem, the dynamic complexity of today’s social reality requires the opposite kind of social policy, because any complexity in practical policy will create social, fiscal and other boundaries which will prevent social and individual change. Just one obvious example is children’s transfers from primary to secondary school, and another the transfer from Job Seeker’s Allowance to (so-called) ‘tax credits’ on an often small change in the number of hours of employment. Liquid post-modernity requires simplicity in social policy so that no boundaries get in the way of social or individual change. Child Benefit and the NHS are obvious examples.

In complexity science as in politics, prediction is perilous; agile humanity is forever able to devise new challenges to the prevailing order; nothing is incontestable; human beings can in some degree choose their futures. (p.305)