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Seeing the policy big picture

11 May 2018

On this special episode of Policy Forum Pod, Helen Sullivan leads a discussion with three experts on the complex systems that underpin the success or failure of public policy.

Anyone engaged in policymaking knows that it’s a complex business. But how often do policymakers take the time to think about the number of complex systems that have a bearing on their work? On the latest podcast, Helen Sullivan chats with Deborah Blackman, Claudia Pahl-Wostl, and Datu Buyung Agusdinata about how thinking about the science of systems can lead to better policymaking. Listen here

Professor Helen Sullivan is Director of the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.

Professor Claudia Pahl-Wostl is Director of the Institute for Environmental Systems Research at the University of Osnabrück, Germany, and co-chair of the Global Water System Project.

Assistant Professor Datu Buyung Agusdinata is a Senior Sustainability Scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

Professor Deborah Blackman is a member of the Public Service Research Group in the School of Business at UNSW, Canberra.

Policymakers often talk about the policy problems they face and how complex they are. Even the most careful policies will often have unintended consequences – an inevitable by-product of the sheer number of people, variables, and systems at play in the real world.

“There are lots of really great policies developed, but not all of them do the things that we’d like them to do,” Blackman says. “A lot of it is about not understanding the system.”

One issue that policymakers often confront is that while different government departments might have clearly designated areas of authority, reality is not nearly so clearly divided. An example is what’s called the food-water-energy nexus, as Pahl-Wostl explains.

“You can’t manage or govern on water without considering other sectoral policies. Often these policies are really incoherent, responsibilities in administration are very fragmented, [and] there are no effective instruments to coordinate policies.”

This is where thinking about systems can be helpful, and the way in which the needs and services of different actors are inter-related.

“What we try at the moment is to develop a more systemic perspective, to use an ecosystem services approach. There are different services that people get or want to have from the ecosystem. How are they dependent?”

Agusdinata takes this kind of thinking one step further by looking at ‘systems of systems’. He defines this a combination of autonomous systems, which are independent operationally, but must nevertheless be part of a larger system in order to address an issue they can’t address on their own.

“For the food-energy-water nexus, you have utility companies that control the provision of energy, you have farmers which produce food, and then you have, water treatment plants and cities.

“They have to coordinate, because they need to achieve higher goals, to reduce the environmental footprint of food, energy, water consumption. This goal is not actually the reason for water utilities to exist, they exist to provide service reliability, they don’t exist to cut emissions. So how could you then reconcile these different priorities?”

Taking a systems approach is helpful not only for understanding the policy big picture, but also for bringing about change.

“Particularly for policymakers, there’s so much written about change management,” says Blackman. “What you’re trying to do is change a system. That means you need to understand where the leverage points are, and when it will be possible to do them.

“We might not be able to fix the 20-year problem this year, but we can work out what Year One needs to look like, so that we can think about 20 years. Even in a political cycle, that gives you something to be starting to move things with.”

For policymakers, it’s not about knowing everything about complex systems, but having an idea of where in a system the leverage points are most likely to be found. On this, it’s especially useful for policymakers to think about what they have tried to change, but not managed to change, Blackman says.

“We might think we understand where the leverage point is, but clearly we don’t. And if we keep pushing at the same leverage point, if you keep trying to do the same thing, why would you think it would be different next time? If the leverage point has not worked, then you need a different one.”

Claudia Pahl-Wostl, Datu Buyung Agusdinata, and Deborah Blackman were in conversation with Director of Crawford School of Public Policy, Helen Sullivan. This episode of the pod was produced and edited by Martyn Pearce. This blog post was written by Nicky Lovegrove.

A special thanks to the School of Business at UNSW Canberra for making this episode possible.

Policy Forum Pod is a production of Crawford School’s Policy Forum website. The podcast is available on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, and wherever you get your podcasts. Got feedback for us on this pod? Tweet us @APPSPolicyForum or find us on Facebook.

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