Focus | Avoiding the simplicity trap
Writing for the International Review of Administrative Sciences, Joycelene Bourgon, distinguished fellow of the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Canada, wrote in an article entitled “The history and future of nation-building? Building capacity for public results” that “public organizations are not yet aligned with the complex problems they are expected to address”. She further wrote, “Addressing complexity and uncertainty will likely require practitioners to work with (i) a broader definition of public results, (ii) an expanded view of the role of government and of the range of possible relationships between government and citizens, and (iii) a more dynamic approach to public administration.” I wholeheartedly agree with Bourgon, but most especially zoom in on her thought about the lack of preparedness to deal with the complexity of the issues confronting us. That lack of preparedness is not just true of public organizations but seems true of private ones and private citizens as well.
I listen to our discussions about sundry issues in this country on a daily basis, from illegal immigration to legalizing marijuana, and what seems abundantly clear is that so many people — I dare say the vast majority of people — have little appreciation for the fact that these and many other issues are simply not simple. They offer simplistic descriptions of the problems, simplistic diagnoses of the problems, simplistic prognoses and simplistic prescriptions for the problems. Thankfully, many of these people do not have charge of public and private institutions and cannot act on these problems and all we must suffer is their simplistic diatribe about the same. On the other hand, there are those who do have this charge, and one must wonder if they are not suffering a similar deficit in appreciating the complexity of the problems that confront us. Might Bourgon be right about our lack of preparedness to cope with the complexity of the problems we must address? If the results we are getting in any number of areas, from economic growth to social transformation is any indication, even if she is not right, something we are doing is clearly wrong.
While the definition of “complexity” can be given in varied fashion, almost all of the definitions point to the existence of multiple parts interacting together and doing so in ways that can be uncertain, random or not easily predicted. This is especially true where free-will social beings are involved in emotionally driven interaction with each other and where their needs and desires vary greatly, as do those in communities and societies. When one approaches problem-solving in such an environment, it is a disadvantage to do so in a simplistic way. The ability to think about the problem from various perspectives and consider all of its parts acting singularly or together and doing so over time must be part of the problem-solving effort.
My aim here is not to have an academic discussion about ethereal things but simply to say that, if we in this country are to be more effective in advancing our nation’s collective aims — assuming we really have some — we must have more respect for the complexity of the issues confronting us and we must adequately ready ourselves to operate in the context of that complexity. As Bourgon puts it, “Achieving collective results requires institutional and organizational capacities but, building on these foundations, governments must also develop greater capacity to anticipate, innovate and adapt in the face of increasingly complex public issues and unpredictable circumstances.” What she says is true for government and is also true for the private sector, though the latter has tended to be better prepared in this way than the former.
We cannot govern or develop ourselves on the whims of the simple or the fancies of the naïve. We must allow the great challenges of the complex to stir us to greater readiness and therefore upgrade our institutions, particularly those that educate us, to rise in their ability to make us capable of coping with that complexity more effectively. The world is not getting simpler. Love or hate globalization, internationalization or democratization, these — like toothpaste once squeezed out of the tube — cannot be put back. Either we learn to deal with them, as the complexity that they are, or we perish. It is as complex as that.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.