One “why” and four “how’s” to recasting complex policy and management problems (longer read)

–Let’s start with some examples of recasting. You see jewelry where I see sculpture on a small scale; you see the orchestra conductor conducting, I see that conducting more as a dance. You see the forest; I see a mountain of poison against insects. I witness the birth of the family’s first child; you see the first child give birth to a family. You see the sketched outline of a toy sailboat (or other desideratum); I point out that the boat’s image is the space left behind after other images have inlined it. We both, on the other hand, see the hole without its doughnut.

I ask, when is biotechnology bestiality? You ask, are gardens zoos without the cruelty? Isn’t heroism first violence to oneself? Is burglary a kind of architectural criticism? Are galleries a novel way artists handle storage problems? Does burning down a huge lumber yard mean houses have been destroyed? Isn’t a single performance one story that can’t be plagiarized?

–Continue with more complications. Doesn’t our continuing inability to safely store nuclear weapons waste reveal the Cold War to be the first war in modern times where the continental US took direct hits because of an enemy? What does the US look like when one realizes it is a country where more men are likely raped than women? (Think: its male prison populations). What if those time-consuming studies to model and validate the life-cycles of endangered species become their weapons of mass destruction?

–Let the examples become even further complicated:

  • Bad policy mess: At one point, three to four billion people—up to two-thirds of the world’s population—lived in regions without adequate water supplies or sanitation. Good policy mess: Now that truly is a very, very large number. Indeed, the distribution of people without adequate water supplies is so large that many of them must be doing better than others. That, without being Darwinian about it, means there are tens of millions —hundreds of millions?—of people who have many things to say about how to better survive without adequate water to those millions more who are also trying to survive without it. But where then are the campaigns, e.g., in the World Bank or the IMF, to do just that?
  • Bad policy mess: It has been said that one out of every two young African-American men in major US urban areas is enmeshed in the criminal justice system. But that too is a large number, right? Good policy mess: Why, then, are we not interviewing the other 50 percent of young urban African-American males outside the criminal justice system to find out what they are doing, and what the rest of us could learn from them?
  • Bad policy mess: A reported 11 million people are in the U.S. illegally. Good policy mess: If those numbers are anywhere close to accurate, then there must be thousands—hundreds of thousands? far, far more? —who are already acting as if they were good U.S. citizens.

Examples can easily be extended, but the point remains: There is no one way, let alone one single right way, to look at conditions already complex.

–The world is not one way only because the world’s complexity—its many components, each component with multiple functions (I am a husband, father, blogger…), and the many interconnections between and among components, functions and the wider context in which these are embedded—enable all manner of interpretations.

That is the “why” of recasting: No single interpretation (explanation or description) can cover or exhaust major issue complexity. The upshot of the inexhaustibility is that complex problems can be cast and recast in multiple ways. Or to put the point from the other direction, any complex policy issue that is described as “intractable” is an exaggeration that has stopped short of further recasting.


But, then, how to recast?

–I suggest four how’s. Two recasting operations are familiar to those who undertake case-by-case analysis of issues: the use of multiple typologies and of methodological triangulation. The other two are less familiar, but no less important for recasting: use of counternarrative thinking and the policy palimpsest.

The four come from my own experience and practice. In this way, the discussion below has all the faults of a sample of one. But, since reframing policy issues has long been a topic in my profession, I encourage the reader to search for other methods, approaches, and examples, starting with that keyword, “reframing.”

–Finally, so as avoid confusion, I keep to the operating definition of issue complexity above: A policy or management issue being more or less complex depends on the number of elements to that issue, the different functions each elements has, and the interconnections among functions and components. Global ecosystem restoration is more complex than that of any regional landscape, because the number of different ecosystem elements, the services provided by each element, and the interconnections among functions and elements (e.g., “resource scarcity) are higher globally.

All else considered, the fewer the elements-etc, the less complex the issue; more elements-etc, then more complex. By way of justification, this reflects the definition of social complexity developed and used over the last 40 years, that of political scientist Todd R. La Porte.

Now to four ways to recast that issue complexity.


Multiple typologies. One great irony in taking issue complexity seriously is the usefulness of linear thinking in doing so. Since “linear” is often equated with “simplification,” I quickly add: …when that linear thinking is in the form of multiple typologies considered together for analyzing that issue complexity.

Any two-by-two table (or some such) is easily criticized for being reductionist in the face of a complex reality. This, though, misses what has always been the latent function of typologies when in the plural: to remind us that reality is indeed more complex than lines, boxes and bullet points can portray.

–Multiple typologies are the norm in my profession, policy analysis and management, and to use them in sequence—one after another, different criteria following upon different criteria—is to render a major policy mess granular enough for differing implications to become visible. Multiple typologies are not the pieces that complete a picture puzzle; they make a puzzle detailed enough to see a different puzzle or puzzles already there.

The typologies in my own work come largely from sociology, political science and organization theory. In the most practical sense, you can begin with any typology, the entire point being there is no obvious macro, meso or micro start when it comes to reframing what is complex—say in natural language, what is uncertain, unfinished and disputed—at the same time. The typologies I rely on include:

  • Different types of unpredictability, including measurable probabilities, unmeasurable uncertainties and unknown-unknowns (adapted from Andrew Stirling’s typology of incertitudes);
  • Different types of organizations, where production agencies–by way of example–differ significantly from coping agencies in terms of their observable/unobservable outputs and outcomes (J.Q. Wilson’s typology of agencies)
  • Different types of cases, e.g., “the case out there in reality” versus “the case emerging from your interaction with issues of concern” (Charles Ragin’s typology of cases)
  • Different types of large-scale technological systems whose centralized or decentralized operations vary as a result of system coupling and interactivity (Charles Perrow’s typology of high-risk technologies)
  • Different types of cultures for differentiating ways of life and policy orientations (the four cultures of Mary Douglas, Aaron Wildavsky and their colleagues)
  • Different performance modes—just-in-case, just-in-time, just-this-way and just-for-now—for the real-time high reliability management of large-scale socio-technical systems (a typology of Roe, Schulman and our colleagues)

No major issue emerges unchanged from the seriatim application of these typologies. More, all issues in this blog—inequality, poverty, war, climate change, pandemics, healthcare, others—merit such attention. In case it needs saying, other typologies may be as fruitful in differentiating the complex issue of concern.

–In all this, though, remember the cardinal virtue of applying typologies when it comes to recasting—or if you prefer, reframing, revising, redescribing, rescripting, refashioning, recalibrating—issue complexity:

  • It is to move you from the myriad types of contingent factors at work affecting the major policy and management issue—societal, political, economic, historical, cultural, legal, scientific, geographical, philosophical, governmental, psychological, neurological, technological, religious, or whatnot.
  • It instead is to move you to the many, but less numerous criteria with which to identify and describe the factors that are pertinent. These reframing criteria are, for example, the horizontal and vertical dimensions used in differentiating the cells of a 2 X 2 typology.


Methodological triangulation. Another great irony in taking social complexity seriously is the how easy it is to over-complexify the issue. People typically think the real problem is simplifying that which cannot or should not be simplified. Equally important, though much less recognized, is over-complexifying the already (more or less) complex.

The litmus test that an issue is too complexified or simplified is whether it can be recast in ways that open up fresh options for intervention without gainsaying the complexity. If a simplification can be recast as complex in ways that new interventions are then plausible or if the issue thought to be so complex that no further action is possible can be recast to show otherwise, then truth of the matter has been pushed and pulled beyond current exaggeration.

–Triangulation is particularly useful for assessing the possibilities of recasting what is thought to be too complex for further action. One form is the use of multiple—the “tri” doesn’t mean three only—methods. This triangulation is most successful when “Whatever the direction you look at this issue, you get to this same point. . .”

Familiar examples of methodological triangulation have been convergence on the recognizing the importance in development of women and of the middle class(es) in a country’s development trajectory. Methodological triangulation also figures prominently in other applied fields (though not all!), e.g., practicing policy analysis, marketing, investigative journalism, and participatory rural appraisal.

–To be clear, the goal in such triangulation is for analysts to increase their confidence—and that of their policy audiences—that no matter what position they take, they are led to the same problem definition, alternative, recommendation, or other desideratum. Accordingly, it cannot and must not be assumed that increasing one’s confidence perforce reduces complexity, increases certainty, or gets one closer to the truth of the issue matter.

Issue complexity remains after triangulation; when successful, it means only that when the number of issue elements, functions and interconnections are high, some mutual intersection or overlap may have occurred empirically.

–Triangulation is thought to be especially helpful in identifying and compensating for biases and limitations in any single approach (e.g., reliance on any single typology). Obtaining a second (and third. . .) opinion or soliciting the input of the range of stakeholders or ensuring you interview key informants with divergent backgrounds are three common examples. Detecting bias is fundamental, because reducing, or correcting and adjusting for, bias is one thing analysts can actually do.

Triangulating on a common point is in no way guaranteed just as canceling out biases—be they cognitive, statistical, cultural, other—cannot be assumed to have occurred as a result of triangulation. (Anyway, it remains an open question which biases are most important—material interests, cultural beliefs or built-in cognitive biases, among the many other candidates.)

–That said, failure to triangulate provides useful information. When findings do not converge across multiple orthogonal metrics or measures (populations, landscapes, scales…), the search by analysts becomes one of identifying specific, localized or idiographic factors at work. What you are studying may in reality be non-generalizable—that is, it may be a case it its own right—and failing to triangulate is one way to confirm that.


Counternarrative thinking. If the aim in complex policy and management is to be more prepared for inevitable surprise—the chief feature of social complexity is not direct power, but direct surprises—you have to be more willing and able to undertake counter-expected or counter-desired thinking. (Surprise, in case it needs adding, is what actually pushes us to rethink what we had expected up to that point.)

–If you’re told “a leads to b leads to c,” ask yourself: Can I think of a plausible scenario where “not-a leads to not-b, but not-b still leads to c” or where “a leads to b, but b leads to not-c”?

If you are told that “integrated pest management [IPM] leads to increased agricultural yields, which in turn lead to more sustainable livelihoods,” can you imagine a scenario (1) where IPM and increased crop yields do not lead to sustainable livelihoods or (2) where chemical-based agriculture and lower field yields could nonetheless lead to sustainable livelihoods?

One can in fact imagine situations where the latter would be found, e.g., in regions where field fertility has always been extremely low and soil depletion high, home plots or gardens become the focus of intensive cultivation.

–Once you have a rival narrative, you ask of it: Is it all that surprising? Under what conditions can the counternarrative be treated seriously? Is its realization desirable with respect to policy and management, here and now? In addition to better preparing you for surprise, a virtue of counternarrative thinking is that, even if the rival scenario cannot now be supported, it could serve as a policy option for the future if conditions change.


Policy palimpsest. A few years ago I had the good fortune to study the EU’s CO2 cap-and-trade system, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Without going into details, the ETS’s first decade and half of operation has been a record of one major problem after another, including but not limited to too many credits issued, adverse economic conditions, and cyber-theft and permit fraud.

Despite this, ETS supporters continued to argue, “Well, what else could we have done? We needed some kind of market, or things would have only gotten worse. . .” Well,  others counter, what you could have done was to search for those better practices that energy infrastructures use in real time to meet such environmental standards. It may be the case that some EU infrastructure control rooms did just that, but no one would ever know that from the existing ETS literature, so focused as it has been on there being no real alternative to the ETS.

I still agree with the gist of the preceding analysis—at least as far as it went—but now understand how a policy palimpsest approach pushes my argument further. That is, my original analysis read as if it were a chronological history of the ETS—”just the facts ma’am”—when in fact it is no such thing.

How so?

–The term, “policy palimpsest,” refers to the social science notion that longstanding controversial policies, like those witnessed in ETS debates over the years, are themselves the composite of policy arguments and narratives that have overwritten and obscured each other.

Any composite argument read off a policy palimpsest reads sequentially—nouns and verbs appear in order and meaning is made—but none of the previous inscriptions come to us clear and whole through the intercalated layers, effacements, fractures, erasures, and lacerations.

Arguments assembled from the palimpsest have been blurred, intertwined and re-rendered for current (often controverted) purposes. The analytic challenge is to read any composite argument with its blur visible in order to acknowledge and probe what has been rendered missing. Why? Because surfacing what is (or has been made) missing may provide potent ways to rewrite currently dominant composite arguments in light of the issue complexity.

–In my original ETS analysis, all I did was conjoined disparate statements together as if each statement were somehow equally important in the sequence I constructed. This happened in the ETS, and then that happened, and still latter some else happened. . .But this is no more logical than the sequence in an alphabet.

To be specific, the meaning in my ETS chronology was not constructed sequentially, but rather paratactically by myself and associatively by the readers at that time. This juxtaposition of dispersed fragments of text into the composite I offered was in reality punctuated by interruptions the readers did not and still do not see. The analytic challenge remains that of making the interruptions visible to the reader—to make evident what is missing in my composite argument by virtue of those earlier debates and points obscured or written out of the record for the ETS.

–I now think the element missing from my initial summation is that open question about just what kind of “fragment” might the ETS itself be. Is it primarily an institutional structure under continual or intermittent construction? Or is it the ruins left behind by techno-managerial elite and New Class of bureaucrats operating well beyond known capacities? Or is the ETS the hollow cypher for all types of environmental hopes that are still unrealistic or evanescent? Or is the answer, maybe all of these? Or maybe none?

To cut to the quick, my original analysis was to be a kind of “last word” on the ETS. That is a temptation policy analysts, including myself, must resist. The palimpsest is always being written over—e.g., a recent EU proposal has been for carbon border taxes (on imports from countries without adequate carbon-pricing systems). Indeed, each effacement of a preceding argument takes the policy audience further away from any kind of “original” beginning, middle and end for the complex policy in question.

–What the notion of policy palimpsest underscores is that a major policy and management issue actually sources all manner of composite arguments, any one is “revisable,” even at the moment policymakers are insisting “this is the right policy for the right time in the right place.”

This is important, since major policy arguments are constantly urged upon us because of their putative elegance, iron simplicity, and seeming import. These must be perilous indeed! They only wink at complexity; they certainly are not to be found via their constitutive policy palimpsest.


To conclude: It is good, not bad, that policy and management are more complex than we often suppose and because they are complex, they can be recast and seen in a new light. The starting assumption should be that an intractably complex issue is one that has yet to be recast. In fact, labeling a complex issue as intractable, full stop, takes the generous notion of intractably human and scalps it both of the why and the how’s.

Principal sources. Material for the above has been culled and revised from earlier, more detailed blog entries: “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Humanism, by default,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination,’” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” and “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II.”

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