Starlings, Transparency, and Thad Allen

I always consider a conference a success if I come away inspired by one big idea. That happened to me at the recent annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration. I’ve been mulling over a series of presentations given at that conference that coincidentally helped me think more clearly about “complexity theory” and “complex adaptive systems.”

Complexity theory and complex adaptive systems are relatively new ventures in the field of public administration, but they are old hat in other academic disciplines such as physics and biology.

So what did I learn?

Defining Complexity. First, I learned from a panel with Dr. Patria de Lancer Julnes (University of Baltimore), the differences between “simple,” “complicated,” and “complex” problems. Simple problems are like filling potholes. This is routinized, repetitive work. Complicated problems are like building a highway or constructing a building. Again, there is a clear beginning, middle, and end, with both variation and repetitiveness. And finally there is complex problems. Complexity is when there is sufficient intricacy that behavior cannot be predicted via linear equations, that there is self-organizing behavior underway. This could be as diverse as the recovery from Hurricane Katrina to the passage of the Health Care bill.

Even Starlings Do It. Second, from another panel focusing on complexity theory, I learned from Dr. Eric Johnston (University of Arizona) that even complex, self-organizing behaviors occur in nature. His example was the “flocking” behavior of starlings.

This behavior involves simple rules – such as not hitting each other and not getting left behind – but when Johnston simulated the flight of starlings using mathematical computer simulations, he found that slight differences in the rules can create large changes in behavior. Author Malcolm Gladwell popularized this concept in his book, “The Tipping Point.”

His advice — don’t avoid complexity, harness it to your advantage.

Emergence. Third, another academic studying complexity theory in public administration, Dr. Goktug Morcol (Pennsylvania State University), public policy cannot be viewed just as rules and tools. We need to conceptualize public policy as a set of activities and relationships that constitute a social system that reciprocates and reproduces over time. The key is to understand how the players are integrated. There is a range of perspectives for how to conceptualize this, e.g., rational choice, principal-agent, etc. The question is: how do individual preferences become collective choices. He says this is the phenomena called “emergence.”

Emergence, Morcol says, is “a system that emerges from the relationships of policy actors” and that “the properties of the emergent system is more than a simple sum of the effects of their behaviors.” His analogy in biology is that Life is an emergent phenomenon – it arises from the properties of individual molecules, but Life is not able to be reduced to the individual molecules, it only exists when they are combined.

Morcol says that there are academic tools used to measure and explain emergence in public administration systems, such as Social Network Analyses, Agent-Based Simulations, and Qualitative Case Studies. There is a conference in June in Rotterdam that will explore this in more detail.

The Role of Transparency. Fourth, Dr. Louise Comfort (University of Pittsburgh) noted at that panel session that individuals change in response to feedback, so the key to fostering successful emergence and complexity behaviors is to increase the ability of participants to share relevant information. Interestingly, this seems to be a key element of the Obama Administration’s Open Government initiative.

Thad Allen: from Theory to Practice. And finally, Thad Allen – the former Coast Guard admiral who led the complex recovery operations in Katrina, Haiti and the BP oil spill — seemed to wrap up all the theory in how he actually used it in practice. In his keynote address Admiral Allen talked about the coordination between the heads of FEMA, USAID and the Department of Defense in rapidly responding to the Haitian quake. The key to success in New Orleans, Haiti, and the BP oil spill was the ability to define the problem and to construct the “right mental model.”

When the Deepwater Horizon rig sank a few days after exploding, Allen told us that the President called his cabinet together to say he wanted everyone working the problem. When a crisis requires the involvement of lots of different public and private entities, Allen says you have to work to avoid what he calls a “Blues Brother” scenario, where everyone is on a mission from God — but can end up working at cross purposes. Allen saw his job as ensuring everyone had access to a “common operating picture” and could see what their roles and contributions were in the bigger picture. He held regular meetings with all the key stakeholders so they could, like the starlings, not run into each other and were flying in the same direction, no matter where the lead took them.

Allen says there are things we demand of leaders that haven’t been done before and he calls this “meta-leadership” which comes from Leonard Marcus, (Harvard University). This involves managing up, managing down, leading horizontally, and the leader having personal self-mastery. He says the lessons of complexity theory do apply in public administration, and that He didn’t avoid complexity – he leveraged it!

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