How universities are failing governments (and what we can do about it)

Responding to an increasingly complex world.

Gabriele Bammer

Government and governance, Science and technology, Education | Australia, The World

12 November 2013

Universities need to raise their game in order to help governments respond to an increasingly complex world, writes Gabriele Bammer.

You might not know it from the simplistic sloganeering of our politicians and the reporting in our media, but the complex problems that governments must deal with—like global environmental change, organised crime, disaster preparedness and refugee migration—do not have perfect solutions.

The clear water of these problems is muddied by value conflicts, seemingly contradictory solutions, missing data, uncertainty and ambiguity, not to mention ideological, cultural, economic and other constraints.

Complex problems also do not exist in isolation; they are interconnected. Extreme weather events are part of global environmental change and require improved disaster preparedness. Refugee camps provide venues for organised predatory criminals, as well as for the spread of infectious disease. As a consequence, any intervention can have a ripple effect far beyond the immediate problem it is aimed at. This means that all the outcomes stemming from government policy cannot be predicted in advance. Unintended adverse consequences and unpleasant surprises are likely.

But complexity doesn’t just lurk in the policy solutions, it’s also in the politics that surround any choice. Any policy will have opponents and any government decision is open to criticism and attack. Opponents have also become more sophisticated in framing issues to generate public support, in using the media, and in generally making it hard for governments to ignore them.

The big challenge for governments is to both take the most effective action on these complex policy problems and to manage the politics decisively. The danger is that managing the politics may be done at the expense of effective action. As opponents get more sophisticated and the politics become more complex, this could lead to poor responses to complex problems and weaker governance.

Universities can and should do more to support strong democratic governance and effective public policy. In particular, universities can better educate politicians and public servants, and develop ways to improve understanding of complexity and imperfection, using that knowledge to support the development and implementation of effective public policy. Let’s start with the skills that universities impart to graduates, who include many politicians and public servants. What we aim to do is to develop rigorous logical thinking, analytical skills, the ability to scrutinise a problem and gain more knowledge. Those are important skills. But they are not enough.

Universities do not yet have particularly well-developed and effective ways to ensure that graduates understand and can respond to interconnections between problems. Universities also still have a long way to go in helping graduates to identify ‘best possible’ and ‘least worst’ solutions and to be able to respond to the unintended adverse consequences and unpleasant surprises that may arise from policy decisions. Politicians and public servants—the good ones at least—learn these skills on the job, but universities do not capture that knowledge to add to our educational repertoire; that’s an important task for us to undertake. Universities could also do better in how well we understand complexity and imperfection and use that to support the development and implementation of effective public policy. There are three areas in universities that we could build on to achieve this.

One is problem-based research and education. There are growing numbers of academic centres dedicated to tackling complex problems, such as: sustainable futures, urban policy and health equity. These centres, by-and-large independently, find that they need to develop new ways of thinking and innovative methods for tackling their problems. But there is no way for them to share and build on their insights.

A second set of developments is a growing number of groups which are starting to build theory and methods for dealing with complexity. But these groups are small and fragmented and again, do not share and build on insights.

The third area that universities could draw on involves bringing together the insights of existing disciplines and practice areas on topics that are fundamental to dealing with complexity and imperfection; such as uncertainty and change.

What I have described—capturing the skills of effective politicians and public servants, combining methodological insights from groups researching complex problems, overcoming the fragmentation of effort, and drawing together knowledge about core elements of complexity from existing disciplines and practice areas—is not the mandate of any established group in universities. But making it our core business could be a major contribution that universities could make.

An effective way to approach this is to establish a cross-cutting, methodologically focused discipline—Integration and Implementation Sciences. Integration and Implementation Sciences addresses three domains: synthesising disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support (combining what we know and effective approaches to what we don’t know) for policy and practice change. Such a discipline provides a way of capturing and codifying the diverse range of methods and concepts that politicians, public servants and researchers dealing with complex problems have developed. It also provides an organised way of scouring existing disciplines and practice areas for relevant knowledge.

It is an effective step that would yield rapid results for universities in supporting strong democratic governance and effective public policy. Instead of being silently complicit in disguising the difficult challenges and complex problems that underpin policy choices, universities have a responsibility to recognise, research and reveal the tapestry of options and trade-offs that should inform public policy. We need to embrace complexity and imperfection, not ignore them.

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