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When the facts won’t get you there

April 25, 2011

I thought I might finish these posts with sharing an offline exchange between myself and colleagues working on education policy. He had asked about "complexity as a framing tool" and would it have anything to offer as an approach to why some people go to higher education and others don't. I had just finished another conversation with a senior official who was leary of complexity being introduced into the policy discourse as experience had showen that it tended to imobilize the discussion and provoke a "let's study it more before we act posture". I believe it allows us to move to action more quickly.

I started by using some distinctions that help differentiate complicated from complex problems (terminology changes from speaker to speaker). It is also worth noting that a policy space will likely have a mix of domains. It is why I believe that workshops that expressly explore the policy space from a complexity context can be very useful. Access to PSE is a good example where the financial dimension can be treated as complicated while the residual considerations affecting PSE participation are predominantly complex. Things slow down when the complex aspects are treated as if they are complicated and we can see that when we look at how we approach the research supporting a policy discussion.

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Treating an issue as complex implies that the approach to building an evidentiary base shifts and that an exploritory approach should be engaged. In the literature the point of difference is described as moving from robust approaches (complicated) to resilient and adaptive strategies (complex). The table below distinguishes what would be differences in the way in which the evidence is built.

There are several shifts in the decisional processes that are important to note. I will talk to two here.

The first is the discussion on evaluation needs to be brought to the front of the process and engaged during the earliest stages of the policy discussion (in most public sector organizations policy work and evaluation decisions occur in different parts of the organization).

The second which is the most difficult to address is that experiments imply risk (Main body public sector organizations (Ministries) will always have a very low tolerance for risk for good reasons). Some interesting things are happening which involve the use of boundary organizations to manage different risk profiles of activities and moving from risk averse to risk aware configuration of activitity. These entities manage a portfolio of experiments on behalf of the main body public service organization establishing a risk firewall. In Finland SITRA is a boundary organization and indeed Finland has many such organizations which help with innovation and collaboration other activities that are difficult to execute within the main body of the public service. Other countries that are doing a good job in using boundary organizations are the Netherlands and Denmark.

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