Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Complexity, Interdisciplinarity and Public Administration: Implications for Integrating Communities

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Complexity, Interdisciplinarity and Public Administration: Implications for Integrating Communities

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Complex systems theory offers a useful way to conceptualize the position of public administrators; interdisciplinary theory provides them with a process as well as pragmatic suggestions for functioning effectively in that position. The usefulness of these theories is demonstrated by applying them to issues emerging from the debate over community participation in public administration

INTRODUCTION

Public administrators, especially in urban areas, mediate between a complex environment that poses problems they are expected to solve and constituencies who perceive those problems differently and make conflicting demands for their solution. This condition of environmental and constituency complexity can usefully be addressed with an interdisciplinary approach. Interdisciplinary theory acknowledges that different facets of a complex system must be seen from different perspectives, each contributing insights that require integration so the complexity can be dealt with in its entirety. Complex systems theory offers a useful way to conceptualize the position of public administrators; interdisciplinary theory provides them with a process and pragmatic suggestions for functioning effectively in that position. Specifically, interdisciplinary theory clarifies how to draw most effectively on experts from economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, geography, ethics, and other fields to appreciate the multiple facets of a complex problem and to address it as a whole. In this paper we offer three integrative techniques embedded in the interdisciplinary literature which are useful in responding to complex conditions faced by public administrators as they incorporate communities into policy development and implementation. These three integrative techniques are extension, thinking in terms of continuous variables, and interpenetration. By finding examples of these techniques in the contemporary practice of public administration, we establish the applicability of interdisciplinary theory to public administration, offer a theoretical rationale for some existing practices, and suggest a strategy for developing other effective techniques for coping with the complexity faced by practicing public administrators. In short, interdisciplinary theory offers public administrators a practical strategy for integrating conflicting perspectives of experts with those of diverse constituencies to jointly solve complex community problems.

COMPLEXITY, OR THE SCHOLAR-ADMINISTRATOR-CITIZEN CONTEXT OF MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES

Picture scholars scattered around a large, extraterrestrial object perennially shrouded in heavy fog and protected by a force shield. This complex object appears to have quite different characteristics depending on one's angle of vision. Its degree of translucence, its structure, and its composition, even its apparent size vary with the perspective from which it is viewed. Over the years, each group of observers has become quite expert at studying the object from their special vantage point through specialized instruments adapted to the particular characteristics of the facet exposed to them. Each has developed a distinctive terminology and body of theory for talking about the issues posed by the object when it is viewed from that position. They have become disciplinary experts.

Picture another group of people charged with figuring out and implementing policy regarding the object. Naively, perhaps, they bring in a representative from each group of experts to help them determine if the object is a threat. One sees it as a Trojan horse, another as a source of exotic materials, and a third as a cosmic message. Since the experts disagree about its potential threat, they predictably disagree on appropriate policy. One recommends development of missile technology to send it back to outer space, another favors work on penetrating the force field, while yet another wants to use what has been learned about the object to attempt to communicate with the beings who constructed it. …

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