Futile Promises – “So that this could never happen again”

A search on Google of the above statement, and slight variations on it, yields some 20,000 hits! An abused child dies, a military adventure fails, or economic meltdown looms out of the blue invariably results in the now well-rehearsed apologetic pronouncement that “lessons have been learnt” and that “steps have been taken to make sure this does not happen again”. Of course a variation on ‘this’ happens again and again.

The popular explanation for these futile promises; favoured by the media and by political parties in opposition, is that the decision-makers in charge at the time are incompetent and lacking in foresight. There is another, more plausible and scientifically-based, explanation. However, that proposition challenges long-held views and brings into question the social structure that has been in existence for centuries.

Essentially there are two types of systems in nature: linear, mechanistic systems and complex systems. The former attracted most attention since Newton’s time. His discoveries of the laws of motion revealed wonderful avenues of control and certainty that stretch from the Industrial Revolution to present-day space travel. These linear systems are readily found in situations that offer a high degree of predictability; as seen on an industrial assembly line. They respond well to ‘hard’ management styles usually represented by the ‘waterfall’ analogy of separate steps involving problem definition, assessment of possible solutions, choice of best solution, and implementation taking the system reliably from an existing state to a new more desirable end-state. Because of the success achieved in many fields an assumption naturally evolved that all social, political and economic phenomena (in addition to clearly mechanistic situations) can be approached in the same way.

The above assumption is not explicitly articulated, but it has had wide consequences especially on the way societies are structured. Mechanistic situations call for command-and-control imposed from the top through a steep hierarchy. Society is now built on the basis of a small elite at the top; assumed to have superior knowledge of how systems function and therefore how they could be managed for the benefit of society as a whole. The elite are awarded handsomely for their efforts on behalf of the rest of the population who could relax and enjoy life in the full knowledge that the elite are their to exploit opportunities and avoid catastrophes. This is the model on which the ‘social contract’ is fashioned. Others might complain about the scale of rewards monopolised by the elite but for several centuries complaints have not been translated into action. When things got dicey the chairs at the top were rearranged and new faces were elected or appointed to avoid total breakdown. Evidently, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s advice (in The Leopard published in 1957) that “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” is well-understood.

However, two developments are forcing a rethink. First, there have been far too many things going wrong, including the financial and economic meltdown of 2007-2009 and the punishing consequences of the efforts to impose, through force, externally defined demands on Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, increasing awareness that social, political, and economic matters are complex systems that behave differently from the more familiar linear mechanistic systems. This last last point is gathering significance because complex systems have a strong tendency to acquire more and more complexity over time. In short, the complex nature of certain human activity situations is becoming too dominant to ignore: the assumption that they are ‘almost’ Newtonian does not sit well with practical experience.

What is the significance of the above developments? Fundamentally, complex systems respond badly or not at all to ‘hard’ management techniques that call for decisive leadership and direction from remote ‘decision-makers and experts’ sitting at the top of an extensive hierarchy. The design principles on which the present social model is based are not fit for purpose anymore. In fact they have been in that parlous condition for a very long time. Radical changes are only possible when no other option remains on offer. Many decades ago, for instance, it was possible to invade a country by means of overwhelming military force; an essentially mechanistic process, and then to proceed to rule that country at will. The ‘rule’ part of that project is becoming increasingly complex, and hence unresponsive to the use of brute force. Complex situations require ‘soft’ management techniques. In this case, one defines a ‘general direction of travel’ and then proceed to coax the system towards that through modest reiterative steps that cycle continuously through definition of problems, possible solutions, actions, and implementation. Trial and error, flexibility, and pragmatism are essential elements of the process. Above all else though, soft management is a social activity that involves all those affected by the system under consideration at all stages.

The division between ‘experts’ at the top and others at the bottom to be consulted occasionally is blurred and the hierarchy is, therefore, considerably more shallow than that seen in ‘hard’ management. This is a far-reaching change that is hard to accept. We are not speaking here about the management of a small company or government department, or even one country. Leading states, aided by international bodies such as the World Bank and IMF, would have to surrender much of their power and privilege (as would local national elites). This will not happen lightly. Painful experiences, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the reign of Bush and his neoconservatives, are necessary components for the inevitable process of devolution. And devolution is taking place: the ‘Obama phenomenon’ is not an accident of fate. Someone like him, and many more after, are bound to come about before the transformation gathers momentum. The world is far too complex, and is becoming more so, for things to remain as they are.

One point should be clarified in conclusion: this is not academic speculation. Governments and other organisations are already looking over the edge to see what lies beyond. And they are taking actions that are precursors of more radical change. For instance, ‘stakeholder engagement’ is a familiar feature albeit at an elementary stage but it has gone beyond the ‘consultation’ of yesteryears. The Canadian Institute on Governance held a conference as far back as October 1998 under the title of ‘A Voice for All: Engaging Canadians for Change‘. Going a step further, The Australian Public Service Commission published in October 2007 a report on ‘Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Service Perspective‘. Complex systems are often referred to as ‘wicked problems. The USA and Britain are not exempted from this trend. Lean technology, for instance, is making an appearance in many service areas including healthcare. Lean technology is basically the same as ‘soft’ management. Complexity thinking is tentatively but inevitably moving towards centre stage.

Encouraged by these trends, professor Robert Geyer, from Lancaster University, and myself, from the University of Liverpool, decided the time was right to write a book on this subject. Our effort, ‘Complexity and Public Policy: A New Approach to 21st Century Politics, Policy and Society‘ is due to be published by Routledge in January 2010.