Context in Public Policy and Management
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Context in Public Policy and Management

The Missing Link?

Edited by Christopher Pollitt

‘Putting into context’ is a very common phrase – both in the social sciences and beyond. But what exactly do we mean by this, and how do we do it? In this book, leading scholars in public policy and management tackle these issues. They show how ideas of context are central to a range of theories and explanations and use an international range of case studies to exemplify context-based explanation. The book uncovers the complexity that lies behind an apparently simple notion, and offers a variety of approaches to decipher that complexity. Context is indeed a missing link, which enables us to make sense of the vital relationship between the general and the particular.
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Chapter 11: Context in public policy: implications of complexity theory

Tony Bovaird


This chapter looks at how the concept of ‘context’ is interpreted in complexity sciences, where it typically plays a very different role from that given to it in other branches of policy studies. When complexity theory is applied to social systems, we are typically dealing with self-organising systems, which do not have an obvious ‘leader’ or ‘network manager’. In particular, complexity theory applies to that class of systems, known as ‘complex adaptive systems’, where the interconnectedness of the agents produces a dynamic interaction of agents that simultaneously react to and create their environment. These are ‘systems which are “more than most” dynamic, self-organising, environment shaping (through dynamic interactions of agents) and sensitive to initial conditions’ (Teisman and Klijn, 2008). The environment of such systems is therefore not a ‘given’ but rather a co-created ‘fitness landscape’, in which the agents most likely to flourish are those who can most readily adapt to changing circumstances and influence the behaviour of others (Kaufman, 1995). This concept fits with the analysis of Weick (1995) and Luhmann (1995) on autopoiesis, although it is only one potential cause of autopoiesis. This chapter considers the implications of this phenomenon for public policy, and in particular for attempts to model public policy outcomes through ‘logic chain’ or ‘cause-and-effect’ analysis. It concludes by considering the extent to which public policy is likely to be dealing with complex adaptive systems in the real world.

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