Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Issues in Reconceptualizing Public Policy from the Perspective of Complexity Theory

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Issues in Reconceptualizing Public Policy from the Perspective of Complexity Theory

Article excerpt

This article discusses some of the core concepts of complexity theory and their applications in understanding public policy processes. It is argued that complexity theorists should adopt the insights of Giddens's structuration theory to make meaningful contributions to public policy theory. Issues in articulating a complexity theory of public policy are discussed. Particularly the issues in defining policy systems and understanding self-organizational processes are highlighted. The implications of emergence are elaborated. It is argued that irreducibility and social causation are problematic concepts and that Giddens's concepts of duality of structure and distanciation can help solve the conceptual problems in the applications of them in public policy.


There are a growing number of applications of the concepts and methodological tools of complexity theory in public policy and policy analysis (e.g., the collection in Dennard, et al, 2008). No comprehensive framework of a complexity theory of public policy has emerged from these works to compete against the established theories of the field (see, for example, Sabatier, 2007) yet. This lack of a comprehensive framework in public policy applications maybe because no coherent complexity theory exists in general yet, as Mitchell (2009: 14) acknowledges. In this paper I will highlight the problems in developing such a framework in two key conceptual areas - self-organization and emergence - and propose solutions.

In introductory textbooks public policy is defined as what governments "choose" to do or not to do (Dye, 1992: 2) and what they "ought or ought not do" (Simon, 2007: 1). More sophisticated conceptualizations of public policy processes reject this simplistic and instrumentalist view and acknowledge that policy processes are complex. The institutional analysis and development framework (Ostrom, 1990, 2005), advocacy coalition framework (Sabatier Sul Jenkins-Smith, 1993), and network governance theories (e.g., Koppenjan 8t. Klijn, 2004) are primary examples. In all three of these theories, public policies are conceptualized as multilayered systems that are populated by individual and aggregate actors. The recognition of the complexity of policy processes by these theorists opens up the space where a complexity theory of public policy can be built.

Two theoretical traditions can be identified in the public policy literature. In the first, public policy is viewed as a macro process (e.g., the innovation and diffusion models, Berry ck. Berry, 2007; large-N comparative studies, Blomquist, 2007; and punctuated equilibrium theory, Baumgartner 8c Jones, 2009). In the second tradition, public policy processes are conceptualized in terms of the relations between micro processes (e.g., individual choices andbehaviors) and macro policy processes (Ostrom, 1990, 2005; Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993). Complexity theory can contribute to both traditions, but primarily to the latter. The conceptual tools of complexity theory I discuss in this paper - self-organization and emergence - are about the micro-macro relationships.

Public Policies as Complex Systems

In Stewart and Ayres's (2001) view policy interventions are self-organizational processes in which self-conscious policy actors play roles. According to these authors, the aim of a policy intervention should not be to reach a predefined goal, but to enable the "target system to enhance its modes of reflexivity, so that its capacity for self-steering is enhanced" (p. 87). Consequendy, the success of a policy can be judged on the basis of how much this self-steering capacity of the target system has been enhanced.

Stewart and Ayres's metaphorical image of "policy interventions targeting self-organizing systems" problematizes the instrumentalist-rationalist view of public policy (i.e., governments set goals and pursue them using policy tools). Their image can be bettered with an image that a policy itself is a self-organizing and evolving system (not an external intervention into a self-organizing system). …

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