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Public Management and Complexity Theory. Richer Decision-Making in Public Services (Routledge Critical Studies in Public Management)

Rhodes, Mary Lee, Murphy, Joanne, Muir, Jenny and Murray, John A.
Routledge: London, 2011
ISBN 9780415457538 (pb)

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Reviewed by Sungho Lee
Samsung Economic Research Institute

Cover of book In response to a familiar critique of the systems theory that it is over reliant on 'armchair' theorizing and 'argument by analogy', this book tries to show how theoretical concepts may be operationalized and analyzed by focusing on quite specific projects bounded in time and place. As a two-part research sequence that characterizes public sector projects as system phenomena and as complex adaptive system (CAS) phenomena, the authors created a researchable '6+4' analytic framework, consisting of six system elements (system, environmental factors, environmental rules, agents, processes, and outcomes) and four CAS dynamics (path-dependency, adaptation, bifurcation, and emergence). Twelve case studies were chosen in two jurisdictions (i.e., Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) for two policy domains (i.e., urban regeneration and healthcare information systems) to highlight how various circumstances - in terms of size, stage, and complexity of projects - might influence participant behaviour and system outcomes.

Reflecting the two-part research sequence, this book consists of two parts. Part I (Chapters 1 - 4) describes twelve case-studies in depth, and demonstrates how they may be perceived as consisting of the six system elements. Part II (Chapters 5 - 8) explores the CAS dynamics present in the case-studies in the context of relevant issues to public managers.

Chapter 5 explores the nature and dynamics of boundaries and demonstrates that boundaries, viewed as initial conditions, have path-dependent impacts on the future trajectory of projects. Furthermore, by looking at how changing boundaries can create bifurcations, future problems and fault lines can be understood and ameliorated.

Chapter 6 explores how the CAS dynamics help to better understand the dynamics of stakeholder involvement in public sector projects, and identifies five themes: the impact of past experience on trust between participants; building capacity for involvement; the role of key individuals as 'boundary spanners'; the balance of power; and the emergence of a shared project 'vision' as a driver for change. These various dynamics are interrelated and have cumulative effect on the quality of community/users involvement. Most case-studies reveal that path-dependency and adaptation drove the emergence of a shared vision that inspired and motivated stakeholders' involvement.

Chapter 7 describes the role and effect of private sector agents, as the introduction of private sector agents increases the complexity of decision-making due to the different perceptions of the environment/objectives. In many case-studies, project-specific agents (PSAs) largely facilitated joint decision-making between agents.

Chapter 8 examines the tension between government policy-making at a central, 'core' level and implementation activity at a local level, i.e., the 'locale'. Due to important bifurcations, emergent activity and continuing adaptation in the system, flexible navigation of policy-setting and implementation were often preferred to pre-determined and programmed actions driven by command and control.

Chapter 9 concludes that the '6+4' framework has worked theoretically across all the case-studies, and that given the intrinsic unpredictability of emergence and bifurcations, the flexible navigation of the processes practically led to desired outcomes.

In sum, the book is useful in teaching students about how to view real world problems with a CAS framework and shows that traditional bureaucratic approaches to accountability may frustrate flexible management of the CAS dynamics. However, its case-study research design relied too much on qualitative research methods, such as secondary literature review, field interviews and questionnaire surveys. This book would be more useful to actual practitioners if it could illustrate how system modelling can be used to better manage real-world problems (e.g., empirical analyses in Alam et al. 2007, Lee 2011, Mattila-Wiro 2009). As the authors suggest, the next stage of this research should be to combine the results of extensive field work shown in this book with a 'harder' modelling.

* References

ALAM SJ, Meyer R, Ziervogel G & Moss S (2007) The Impact of HIV/AIDS in the Context of Socioeconomic Stressors: an Evidence-Driven Approach. JASSS 10 (4) 7, http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/10/4/7.html

LEES (2011) Consolidation of public safety wireless networks: An options-based economic analysis of numerous scenarios. Telecommunications Policy 35(2): 91-101

MATTILA-WIRO P (2009) Income Distribution Effects of a Finnish Work Incentive Trap Reform. JASSS 12 (3) 3, http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/12/3/3.html


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