© Copyright JASSS

JASSS logo ------

Complexity, Institutions and Public Policy: Agile Decision-Making in a Turbulent World

Room, Graham
Edward Elgar Publishing: Cheltenham, 2011
ISBN 0857932632 (pb)

Order this book

Reviewed by Lynne Hamill
University of Surrey, UK

Cover of book Graham Room is Professor of European Social Policy at the University of Bath in the UK. This book is the outcome of a two year research fellowship provided by the UK Economic and Research Council. During that time, Professor Room clearly did a great deal of reading, and this book ranges over a very large area.

The book is aimed at two groups: those studying institutions and those studying complexity science. Professor Room opens the book by expressing his dissatisfaction with "conventional approaches within social policy studies to the conceptualisation and measurement of dynamic change" and asserts that "in complex and rapidly changing societies we are not well equipped as researchers to offer critical illumination and advice for policy-makers and the wider public".

The book is divided into three parts: concepts, methods and policy.

The first part, dealing with concepts, brings together ideas on how the dynamic processes of socio-economic change can be conceptualised, drawing on physics, evolutionary biology and social science (mostly economics), largely areas far from Room's research specialism of poverty and social exclusion. It concludes that social systems are self-organising and may be far from equilibrium.

The second part, on methods, considers how these endogenous socio-economic processes can be modelled, starting with phase space and strange attractors and going on to cover, among other things, the analysis of networks and agent-based modelling (ABM). Professor Room does not see ABM as a useful tool for explaining social patterns because of the difficulty of validating the models and the difficulty of incorporating "inherited" structures into the models. Furthermore, he argues that the agents can only follow the courses of action that are programmed and therefore cannot incorporate the agility that he is encouraging. (By "agility", Professor Room appears to mean something similar to what was called "lateral thinking" or, to use more recent management-speak, "thinking outside the box".) He does, however, see a role for ABM in scenario building, looking at possible futures.

In the final part, on policies, Professor Room considers what analytical tools can help policy-makers monitor these processes. He concludes, with a "toolkit" that includes such exhortations as "Map the landscape", "Identify the protagonists" and "Watch for tipping points". He then applies this "toolkit" to four examples: in education, provision for lone parents, the knowledge economy and the current global financial crisis. In my experience of many years working as a policy adviser for the UK Government, what Professor Room describes in his toolkit is what senior civil servants have always tried to do even if they do not describe it in these terms. Professor Room acknowledges that other "toolkits" exist, including several devised by the UK Government. But he argues that these tend to assume "a stable environment and well-defined policy problems". No-one who has worked in UK policy-making would describe that environment as stable. (Professor Room's experience has been at EU level.) In the UK, the next election always looms and ministers - the chief policy makers - are frequently moved between departments: thus even in areas where taking the long term view is important - such as the provision of infrastructure - short term priorities often take precedence.

Overall, Professor Room is arguing that the new ideas generated by complexity theory can give policy-makers new ways of looking at the world that may help them do their jobs "better". That may be so, but I do not think that Professor Room has made the case. I would have liked to hear more about what value this new toolkit would add to the many toolkits that already exist.

Some researchers may find this book of interest but I expect that few readers of JASSS will find anything new or useful in it.


ButtonReturn to Contents of this issue