Where now for governance?

From Ant Hills to the Arab Spring: Where Now for Governance?

Complexity theory has helped us to understand natural phenomena from temperature-controlled termite mounds to the swirling patterns created by flocks of birds. The language of emergence and self-organization highlights interdependent relationships between the individual and the community, and the importance of simple principles to co-create large scale order.

Using this lens to address governance, we might ask questions about the role of leaders, the significance of information flow, and the relation between cause and effect. Traditional governance arrangements conceive of a higher authority overseeing, if not controlling, smaller groupings. But how relevant is this attitude, rooted in a Newtonian worldview of cause and effect, to today’s information rich, boundary-less society?

Take trust. When the BBC was suffering loss in public trust over scandals ranging from the use of charity phone-in money to the naming of a cat, their response was to send 16 500 people on a course, Safeguarding Trust. But is trust something that can be learned on an (online) course? Isn’t trust something that emerges from consistency in daily interactions? Here we see two key points:

  • the importance of small things, and
  • the need for consistency.

One of the reasons politicians are held in low esteem is when inconsistencies appear either in their policies or between their public pronouncements and private behaviour. From MPs’ expenses to the Leveson Enquiry, we see fallout from inconsistency. What if we turned traditional governance on its head and looked at small everyday things? As with flocking birds, large scale patterns emerge from small scale interactions. Again, we can note two points:

  • such consistency has a major positive benefit in creating zones of psychological security during times of uncertainty and change, and
  • consistency between small scale behaviour and large scale policy pronouncements suggests another concept from complexity theory: fractals.

Two features of recent political movements are relevant:

  • the importance of free information flow, facilitated by social media
  • the contrast between a minimum of (individual, hierarchical) leaders and rich local leadership.

Newtonian approaches to governance might aim to control the former, and seek to negotiate with the latter. But what happens when there are few leaders, but much leadership? We can note several links with the commons. Rather than top-down ‘control’ by an authority, regulator, or board, we see co-creation of an environment where people can thrive: co-governance and co-production. We see a balance between the individual and common good, encouraged by shared engagement and consistency, which leads to trust. Information is openly shared in many peer-to-peer ways.

We can highlight two of the aspects, which are often described as features of commons:

  • rules. Are these better described as ‘key principles’ or ‘precepts’? The crucial point from an emergence perspective is that simple small ‘rules’ can lead to large scale patterns.
  • boundaries. How porous should these be? From an ecological and cybernetic perspective, rigid boundaries may not promote healthy development.

One crucial approach ties rules and boundaries together: consistency. As Yahoo!’s CEO has discovered, free flow of information across boundaries can highlight inconsistencies, such as in a resumé. According to commentators, Scott Thompson did not lose his job as a result of poor performance, but of ethics.

Tim Harle is a Visiting Fellow at Bristol Business School and a Lay Canon of Bristol Cathedral. He is a member of the international In Claritas community exploring new approaches to governance and Vice-Chair of MODEM, a network promoting mutual learning between churches and the business community.

Relevant/recommended affiliations:

Contact details:

Web        www.timharle.net

Email      tim@timharle.net

Twitter  @TimHarle

Phone    +44 (0) 1249 721707

How to Find Out More

A YouTube clip

Spontaneous Order in People, Markets, Societies, and Neurons. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w5aJvVCc0Q&feature=related. This clip not only introduces emergence using flocks of birds and shoals of fish, but highlights self-organization happening as a crowd crosses a New York street.

An article

Tim Harle (2007) ‘The Prairie and the Rainforest: Ecologies for Sustaining Organisational Change’. Business Leadership Review 4(3), pp1-15. An introduction to complexity theory and psychological security. The article, which is © Association of MBAs, may be downloaded free of charge from http://www.timharle.net/pubs.html

Two books

Carne Ross (2011) The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century. London: Simon & Schuster. A former UN diplomat writes of the influence that complexity theory and behavioural economics have had on his understanding of political movements.

Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. A surprise best seller from academics specialising in economics and jurisprudence.


A mundane example:

Platforms 13 & 15 Bristol Temple Meads station is the departure and arrival point for train services to and from London. In a typical hour, two trains arrive and two leave. Access to the platforms is via two staircases from the subway. These are wide enough for four people side-by-side: they have handrails at the side and down the middle. Passenger flows were affected when, rather than being a common space, the staircases were divided into ‘up’ and ‘down’ sides. The result? Queues were lengthened and crushing increased as an arriving train’s worth of passengers had only half the width of staircase available to them. Participative observation suggests that a stable self-organizing pattern regularly emerges with passengers (unwittingly?) cooperating to use one half of the ‘up’ side to walk ‘down’.