The new study of complex networks has significant implications for the structure of government, the formation and implementation of public policy, and the day-to-day management of departments.
An implicit assumption often embedded in the analysis of public policy concerns, and the development of policy to “solve” these concerns, is an assumption of the “rational agent”. In this framing, people are viewed as highly rational optimisers, rather than emotional, social individuals. In this view of people, policy is typically designed as a set of carrots and sticks that leads, mechanistically, to an adjustment of behaviour.
In the messy, complex reality of social systems, this inaccurate view of people often leads to policies that are far from ideal, and which are often counter-productive. Many social norms, conventions, and values emerge from within society in a way that is not mechanistic, which means it is often difficult to influence people’s behaviour in ways a government deems desirable.
We often see equivalent mistakes made in the governance and management of government departments because orthodox management science is also based on mechanistic thinking. Senior civil servants create department strategy, which is then “cascaded down, through the machine”. In addition, “best practice” is often imported from the private sector in to public organisations that are often inappropriate because their aims are not profit maximisation, and the motivation of staff typically differs from their counterparts in the private sector. For example, requiring NHS staff to operate on a commercial environment and to achieve particular targets can have perverse consequences, which are not anticipated by the officials who formed the strategy.
Complex networks emphasise the true nature of social systems, rather than making convenient, inaccurate abstractions. Fields such as psychology and behavioural economics need to be combined with network theory to build a more accurate picture of social systems, allowing for better policy formation.
Complex networks also emphasise the unique nature of particular policy domains, and organisational challenges, requiring tailored policies and strategies. The mapping of particular ideologies on to multiple challenges (e.g. forcing the NHS to become a commercial industry) is called in to doubt: there are few silver bullets in complex networks.