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Navigating Complexity in Policy and Politics: Prospects and Challenges

Policy Analysis
Public Policy
Methods
Policy Change
Policy Implementation
Policy-Making
S42
Koen Bartels
University of Birmingham
Selen A. Ercan
Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

Endorsed by the ECPR Standing Group on Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis


Abstract

The complexity of policy processes is a popular trope in theory and practice. The Covid-19 pandemic epitomizes the challenges and stakes of policy making under complexity and uncertainty. The different policies adopted in different countries and over time underline the contingency of policy problems and ways in which these are addressed. But one would be hard-pressed to identify any contemporary policy issue that is not labelled ‘complex’. Policy issues are commonly characterized as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel & Webber, 1973) that are multifaceted, lack agreement on the nature of the problem or what constitutes a good solution, and inevitably generate unanticipated consequences. Already in 1993, Kooiman argued that also the governance systems in place to address these problems are complex due to their convoluted networks of actors, interests, rules and activities across multiple organizations and levels of governance. Almost 30 years later, we can state that globalization, digitalization, and acceleration of technology development increased this complexity further. Interpretive, critical and deliberative approaches to policy analysis have done a great deal to advance understanding of the complexity of policy. They have emphasized the multiplicity of interpretations, meanings, and problematizations of contested issues in diverse policy arenas, and offered novel pathways to analyze the discursive struggles over these and develop deliberative interventions to foster joint reflexivity, learning and change (e.g., Fischer and Forester 1993; Hajer and Wagenaar 2003; Wagenaar 2011; Fischer and Gottweis 2012; Fischer et al. 2015). In line with the increasingly popularity of complexity-inspired approaches across the social sciences over the past decades, few policy analysts would take issue with the idea that policy processes can be understood as complex adaptive systems. There is strong conceptual, methodological and practical resonance with the key ideas of complexity theory that dynamic interactions between interdependent and reflexive actors generate emergent properties that are unpredictable, highly contingent, and impossible to control (see e.g., Bartels et al., 2020). Yet still there are still many important questions concerning the way policy actors understand and navigate complexity. One fundamental challenge, as identified by Geyer and Cairney (2015) is to generate ‘a language of complexity that everyone understands and shares’ (p. 465). Complexity theory discards rationalist conceptions of policy as objectively knowable and controllable. Yet, the desire for such reductionist conceptions seem to continue to perpetuate policy research and practice. This section aims to identify such tensions and advance understanding of how policy actors make sense of and address the complexity of policy issues and processes. More specifically, it seeks to improve our understanding of how theoretical perspectives on complexity aid our ability to navigate emergence, unpredictability and contingency when analyzing policy processes and seeking to achieve policy change. This Section is co-organised by Selen Ercan, John Boswell and Koen Bartels. We invite panels and papers focusing on ways of navigating complexity in policy and politics, seeking to address the following questions: • How does complexity matter to policy actors? • How can we interpret complex policy systems? • In what ways can complexity be connected to political and social theories? • What does it mean to take a critical approach to the complexity of policy? • Which renewal of concepts do interpretive, critical and deliberative approaches to policy analysis need to interpret complex policy arenas in the 2020s? • In what ways can policy actors best deal with complexity? • Do we have concepts to offer that can help policy makers in navigating complexity? • How can policy analysts intervene in complex policy systems? • What is the value of approaching inequality, injustice and sustainability in terms of complexity? • What is the relationship between complexity and democracy? What democratic approaches offer a promising way of embracing/ addressing complexity? • How to make sense of complexity in a digital era, and which prospects and challenges to complexity does digitalization offer? References Bartels, K.P.R., H. Wagenaar and Y. Li (2020) Introduction: towards deliberative policy analysis 2.0, Policy Studies, 41:4, 295-306. Fischer, F., and J. Forester. eds. 1993. The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning. London: UCL Press. Fischer, F., and H. Gottweis. eds. 2012. The Argumentative Turn Revisited. Public Policy as Communicative Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Fischer, F., D. Torgerson, A. Durnova, and M. Orsini. eds. 2015. Handbook of Critical Policy Studies. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Geyer, R., and P. Cairney, eds. 2015. Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Hajer, M. A., and H. Wagenaar. eds. 2003. Deliberative Policy Analysis: Understanding Governance in the Network Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Head, B.W. (2019) Forty years of wicked problems literature: forging closer links to policy studies, Policy and Society, 38:2, 180-197. Kooiman, J., ed. 1993. Modern Governance: New Government-Society Interactions. London: Sage. Rittel, H. and M. Webber. 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169. Wagenaar, H. 2011. Meaning in Action. Interpretation and Dialogue in Policy Analysis. Abingdon: Routledge.
Code Title Details
P009 Action Research, Complexity and Policy Change View Panel Details
P147 Examining criminal justice and detention policies from a gender and feminist perspective View Panel Details
P246 Making sense of complexity in policy and politics View Panel Details
P302 Policy, complexity and ecological sustainability View Panel Details
P303 Policy and the complexity of urban transformations View Panel Details
P306 Policy and complexity: theoretical perspectives on analyzing complex policy issues and processes View Panel Details
P374 Roundtable: Nicole Curato, 2019. Democracy in Times of Misery: From Spectacular Miseries to Deliberative Action View Panel Details