Are Policymakers Right to Rely on Emergence?

By Chris Davies

One of the most striking features of the Coalition Government’s approach to policy implementation is its embrace of emergence and self-organisation.  You won’t find any references to these in manifestos or ministerial speeches, of course, but a cursory look under the bonnet of some of the Government’s shiniest policies demonstrates the extent to which emergence lies at their heart.  A few examples will suffice:


  • In education, the replacement of the old-style school improvement process, managed by central government,  inspectors and the local authority, with one in that relies on schools themselves to support one another in improving performance, driven by increased competition and parental choice thanks to the entry of free schools or new academy providers;
  • In health, the explicit creation of a commissioning market, in which GPs compete for patients by offering more “customer-focused” treatment regimes.  This, the plan goes, will drive up the performance of the secondary care system by forcing hospitals to respond to patients’ demands;
  • Most audaciously, the Big Society (in so far as it is still being pursued), depends on a spontaneous self-organisation of society to provide a range of community services, with the expectation that such self-organisation will take place once the dead hand of the state is removed from communities.

In each instance, emergent processes of self-organisation and performance improvement are, it is hoped, going to operate.  The interactions that are the lifeblood of the system – the school choices of parents, the choice of which GP to register with, the discussions of a community around how best to resolve its problems – will combine, it is hoped, to drive change.  And in most policy areas, the thing that will make those interactions different is changes to the form of components (schools, primary care providers etc) in the system.  Ministers in these circumstances then become responsible for the overall working of the system, but not its details.  When the NHS was set up, Aneurin Bevan commented that he wanted the noise of a bedpan dropped in Treorchy to reverberate round the Palace of Westminster, so closely responsible would ministers be for operational detail.  Not today.

The attractions of this approach to policy are various.  Intellectually, it recognises that the systems for which ministers are responsible are indeed complex, and command and control approaches to their management are doomed to failure.  Bevan’s aim in getting a grip of operational detail was admirable, but it was sadly rooted in a (then common) misunderstanding of what can be achieved in managing a complex system.

This truth gives credibility to the second attraction of this thinking: that it gives modern justification to some of the principles of old-fashioned Conservatism.  It enables Cameron and colleagues to fend off crude accusations of market fundamentalism; this is about enabling a system to flourish by removing external interference not pursuing a rawly capitalist model of society.

The third and final attraction of this approach is cost.  We have long known that command-and-control approaches to managing complex systems are generally ineffective.  In the early 1970s the MIT academic Donald Schon laid out clear criticisms of the kind of models that sadly came to be prevalent under New Public Management(NPM), with its performance objectives, KPIs, inspections, and gamed behaviour.     What has become clear is that this ineffectiveness is married to increased cost.  The regime of target setting, reporting and monitoring on which NPM depended has partly fuelled the steady increase in the cost of government.  If we can rely on public services to ‘spontaneously’ do the right thing without this bureaucratic paraphernalia, then let emergence reign in a time of austerity.

This isn’t the place to unpack all of the issues around this approach to policy implementation.  But there is probably time to look at just one: the pace of change.

One of the long-standing criticisms of government is its short-termism.  There are two parts to this.  One is structural in the nature of politics and is well-rehearsed: in a world where Secretaries of State occupy a post for an average of only just over two years, the desire to see change delivered quickly is immense.  Change that happens slowly is not politically appealing.

The second problem is the corollary of this: strategic churn.  The speed at which governmental systems move can be so glacial that they get overtaken by ministerial impatience, with new policies being piled on top of old at a breakneck pace.   To take one example: in the 24 years since 1988, the system of qualifications for pupils post-14 has been overhauled seven times, giving each arrangement an average of just three years to settle in before a new model came along.  There have been similar levels of disruption in the NHS (with at least six operating models adopted since the mid-1990s), the benefits system and beyond.  On each occasion, reforms have barely been given the time to be implemented before they are replaced by a newer, shinier idea.

There are many reasons for this slow pace, but one of the largest is the sheer scale of change required.  Indeed, the size of this challenge is difficult for those without government experience to comprehend: just this week James O’Shaugnessy, the recently-departed director of policy at Number 10, said that he and most other newcomers to government were surprised at how difficult it was to change the course of the government “super-tanker”.

In this context, then, relying on emergence to make the changes you want becomes a big gamble.  What makes it so risky is the nature of emergence itself.  One of the most important motors for emergence is the interactions that drive change, and the frequency with which they occur (what you might refer to as transaction density).  In transaction-dense environments, the interactions and feedback necessary to drive emergence happen often enough and regularly enough to drive rapid change: the increasing speed with which change happens in the transaction-dense financial markets is indicative of this.  Where transactions happen less frequently, emergence is a slower process.

Sadly for the current government, few of the systems targeted for emergent change are transaction-dense.  Few parents move their children around the school system once a choice has been made: this explains the paradox of failing schools enjoying overwhelming parental support.  Once we have chosen a GP, we are unlikely to change her, not least because the frequency with which we draw down NHS services is, for much of our lives, thankfully pretty low.  And so it goes on: and so mount the risks to achieving change quickly through emergence when there just isn’t enough pressure on each component of the system.

At the same time, the irony in all this is that emergence is happening anyway – both within the systems that ministers want to change, and outside.   And the speed with which that emergence is happening in some areas may render redundant the best efforts of ministers.  It is striking that while government plays with the institutional forms of our public services in an effort to encourage change, the outside world is spontaneously developing wholly new models of service delivery.  In education, for instance, the Khan Academy now offers thousands of hours of online teaching that any school can use, irrespective of whether it is a Free School, an academy, or a good old community school.  But more powerfully, students don’t need to be in school to access it.  And that need only be the start of a set of fundamental changes to the way we access and use learning, which may make the school and questions of its legal form look as relevant to tomorrow’s learners as the concerns of medieval scholiasts do today.

Now it’s fair to say that this is recognised in government: Michael Gove touched on exactly this theme last week.  But wouldn’t it be funny if after all the billions spent on encouraging emergence through changes to the legal forms of schools (and of GPs, and of community services, and of…), the system was blown apart in short order by emergent changes over which the government has had no influence?


2 Responses to “Are Policymakers Right to Rely on Emergence?”

  1. Matthew Mezey says:

    Hi Greg,

    I wanted to share this blog post by tweeting about it – but you don’t seem to have enabled that kind of sharing. Please do, it will help people to share your content with their networks.

    Do take a look at the recent RSA report I co-authored – ‘Beyond the Big Society – psychological foundations of active citixenship’: (a blog post about the report – with link to download the full report).

    I wonder how emergence might relate to Prof Kegan’s model of adult maturation, which we focus on?



    • Chris Davies says:

      Hi Matthew – thanks for your comment. Hopefully Greg can sort out the technical issues since being referred is always a nice experience!

      I read your report with interest. I think you make an important point in highlighting the role of mental complexity in the success of the Big Society. It links to another of the key challenges associated with taking an emergence-based approach to implementing change, namely the importance of institutions (in the Northian sense, e.g. here:

      Since they create the rules of the game, which govern the operation of a complex system, institutions play a crucial role in defining the attractor states towards which human complex systems evolve. In other words, institutions help to create the conditions to which society is likely to default if people don’t shake the system up.

      Overcoming the effects of those institutions requires their root and branch reform, or even wholesale rejection. This is a process as likely to generate opposition as it is to command support. It takes quite a special person – in the nicest sense! – to drive the programme of change needed to make that institutional reform, and I’m not sure the world is chock full of them.

      I’m reminded of that Bernard Shaw quote: “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” It’s a lonely place to be!



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