08 July 2010

Leadership and the Complexity of Social Networks and Public Policy

Matthew Taylor from The RSA has a very simple, and worthwhile, blog post about the importance of understanding complexity approaches to public policy initiatives with respect to using social networking and technologies associated with social media. I'll reproduce most of it here because it raises critical issues for traditionally BAH organizations in general:
Two general points stand out:
  • Social networks are important; understanding and using them can make a significant contribution to tapping into civic capacity and meeting public policy goals.
  • Social networks are complex and the way they operate unpredictable.
Together, these findings suggest a major shift in the methodology of public policy.  Traditional policy interventions – particularly in relation to social problems – have these characteristics:
  • They are large scale and expensive.
  • They aim for relatively marginal improvement in outcomes e.g. a few percent lower unemployment or higher pupil attainment.
  • They seek to minimise risk through systems of regulation, audit, and accountability.
But these design features do not fit the characteristics of social networks interventions, which are:
  • They will usually fail.
  • Occasionally small interventions will have major impact through contagion effects.
  • Sometimes interventions will have an impact very different to those planned (sometimes good, sometimes not).
An emphasis on social networks changes not just the focus and design of public policy, but the whole way we think about success and failure.
What Matthew identifies as the characteristics of public policy initiatives - large scale, expensive, aiming for marginal improvements of quantifiable outcomes, while minimizing risk through control systems - are key determinant characteristics of BAH organizations, irrespective of their public/private/social-economy sector. These sorts of controls preclude emergence by eliminating complexity effects. Rather, they implement what I describe as the BAH Theory of Change (see here, especially with respect to Change, Coordination, and Evaluation). The emphasis is on control, so that planned and predicted outcomes can be measured to demonstrate to those to whom one is individually accountable that, "See? I am suitable for this office that I hold because I can control and manage and accomplish what I say I will accomplish."

However, as I point out, that sort of leadership mentality is a BAH artefact, that is, an artefact of Industrial Age thinking. Any leader who holds this view, and in the same breath utters the phrase, "social media," (or any of its analogues, like Twitter, blogs, wikis, Facebook, viral videos, or similar), simply does not understand, and should be demoted to become the factory floor foreperson! The reality of today's UCaPP world is complexity, and that means unpredictability, and realizing that small interventions can have large systemic effects through massively interconnected feedback and feedforward networks. It means one must remain cognisant of secondary and tertiary effects, and rethink what it means to be successful in effect, rather than in outcomes. Here is the difference in mentalities:
BAH organizations replace the complexity of human dynamics in social systems with the complication of machine-analogous procedures that enable interdependence through interdependent action, individual responsibility, and hierarchical accountability. UCaPP organizations encourage and enable processes of continual emergence by valuing and promoting complex interactions, even though doing so necessitates traditional, legitimated leadership ceding control in an environment of individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability.
Which one works for your government's public policy or your organization depends entirely on the culture of the organization in question. Which one works for today's public policy or today's organization is obvious in a UCaPP world. The key question for leaders is, "Do you want to be relevant, or obsolescent?"

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