Tag Archives: Office of Technology Assessment

Communications and Complexity: The Need for a Policy Interface

communication by Guacamole Goalie

communication by Guacamole Goalie

Tomorrow, the Communication Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University will join together with the Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law, Michigan State University, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and University of Konstanz, Germany,
in hosting a conference on Applying Complexity Theory to Improve Communications Policy. The conference is based on the premise that the field of communication constitutes a complex adaptive system, such that we need new regulatory approaches and tools that can take this complexity into account. We plan to cover four topic areas: 1) the value added of complexity theory; 2) tools and methodology for using complexity theory; 3) applying complexity theory to national broadband policy; and 4) building support for, and incorporating, complexity theory into communications policy.

I have been thinking about how one might structure the policy environment so as to foster greater interaction of policy actors and their diverse approaches and ideas

Having been assigned the task of facilitating the final panel, I have been pondering structural approaches to promoting complexity analysis–in particular, I have been thinking about how one might structure the policy environment so as to foster greater interaction of policy actors and their diverse approaches and ideas. My assumption is that to analyze complexity adequately, the policy structure must, itself, reflect it.  Some thoughts come to mind in this regard. 

For example, building on Ron Burt‘s characterization of good ideas, it would appear that policy organizations should be structured in such a way that policy actors benefit not only from strong ties among like-minded associates, but also from weak ties across diverse associations. As Burt notes:

Opinion and behavior are more homogeneous within than between groups so people connected across groups are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving, which give them more options to select and synthesize from alternatives (http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ronald.burt/research/SHGI.pdf)

One might conclude, therefore, that–for complexity to be attended to–the  architecture of the policy making arena must provide links across diverse policy domains. 

This conclusion coincides with the conclusions of a paper that my colleagues Ellen Surles, Qi Chen and I wrote for the Social Science Research Council, entitled Fostering a Communication Policy Dialogue: The Need for a Sustainable Communication Interface. In this paper, we adopted  John Kingdon‘s description of policy making as a non-linear process, which entails the convergence of three different streams–identifying problems, identifying solutions, and making political decisions. Kingdon argues that when these streams converge there is a window of opportunity when policy outcomes can occur. In our paper, my colleagues and I sought to identify the structural properties that would allow such convergence to take place. Viewing these three policy streams as distinct worlds, each with its own habitus, we identified the need for a policy interface, that would help policy actors to communicate with one another. As we argued:

The policy debate can become inhibited and muted in part because many players lack the resources and skills to communicate across these fields of policy activities. It is especially helpful when a number of diverse actors interact and engage with one another to the extent that they create a space where they can find common ground. We call this space the policy interface. Issues rise on the policy agenda when [policy streams] converge in such a way that ideas are translated and actors come to value each other’s perspectives and therefore perceive policy issues in a congruent way.

Much as in the case of Burt’s notion of good ideas, the architecture of the interface that we described provides for both weak and strong ties.  It allowed policy actors from different activity fields to maintain their individual perspectives, while coming together in a common space where they might have a productive–and far richer–dialogue. 

The US communication policy arena lacks such an interface, and policy making suffers as a result.  Jurisdiction is divided among numerous agencies, whose independent actions often lead to conflicting outcomes.  Issues are not considered to be complex; rather they are typically reduced to approximate the specific mission of the agency in which they are resolved.  

Time to Push the Restart Button for OTA

Time to Push the Restart Button for OTA

The outstanding question, therefore, is where might we look for such a policy interface?  Not surprisingly, given my own background, I would look to a government agency such as the Office of Technology Assessment, which not only brought diverse actors together, and incorporated their perspectives in the agency’s research results. As importantly, OTA translated complex problems into narratives that both Congress and the public could grapple with.

Value Free; Value Added

Preparing for my Technology and Society class unveiled an interesting paradox. Looking back from an historical perspective, I was struck by how the term value free science has become a very value ladened word.

looking back from an historical perspective, I was struck by how the term value free science has become a very value ladened word.  

Indeed, this is a curious unintended consequence! For, as John M. Jordan documented in Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering & American Liberalism (1998), social scientists have, for more than a half century, diligently sought to rid their disciplines of all interpretations and ideological perspectives. As Jordan pointed out, the ultimate goal of these social scientists–which included such luminaries as Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Walter Lippman, Edwin Gay, and Herbert Croly, among others–was not only to generate new knowledge, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to enhance democratic politics by replacing ideologically oriented politicians with value free experts.

Backfire  (courtesy of Tohoscope)

Backfire (courtesy of Tohoscope)

Assessing the political situation today, one can only say that the efforts of these social scientists clearly backfired. For, while most academics remain standoffish, isolated in their ivory towers creating value free science, politicians–such as John McCain and Sarah Palin–have clearly gone over the top in contending that personal values and personalities trump policy analysis. Equally problematic , in terms of differentiating between facts and ideology, are the growing efforts by today’s political leaders to employ the work of scientists to cloak private interests in what is ostensibly value free analysis

politicians–such as John McCain and Sarah Palin–have clearly gone over the top in contending that personal values and personalities trump policy analysis. 

We seem to have come full circle in this regard. For, not without some irony, today’s opponents of the Administration’s performance disdainfully equate the present government’s science with political science. (Statement of Liz Godfrey, policy director for the Endangered Species Coalition. )

The Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans have been especially pernicious in characterizing scientific studies whose conclusions it opposes as junk science, while labeling those with which it agrees as good science. The Department of Interior’s analyses of scientific data calling for protection of endangered species provides one interesting case in point. For example, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which conducted a survey of Fish and Wildlife Scientists in 2005, Julie MacDonald, a political appointee in the Department of Interior, consistently demanded that the Agency’s scientists alter their findings so as to justify not listing imperiled species such as the Gunnison sage grouse, the California tiger salamander, the roundtail chub, Gunnison’s and White-tailed prairie dogs, and the Mexican garter snake. According to one survey respondent:

I have never before seen the boldness of intimidation demonstrated by a single political appointee. She has modified the behavior of the entire agency. I believe that there should be a thorough investigation of her abuse of discretionary authority and modification of science information provided in the FWS documents. (Noah Greenwald, Seattle-Post Intelligencer December 20, 2006)

Such shenanigans are not limited to one Federal Agency. EPA’s former administrator, Stephen Johnson, was also forced to resign, after the union representing the vast majority of EPA scientists accused him of chronic mendacity, information suppression, and overriding his science advisors in setting new ozone standards (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Newsletter, Spring 2008). One symptom of this behavior was the Agency’s decision to close half of its libraries, which housed a good portion of EPA’s earlier scientific studies ( PEER Review Winter 2007, p.9). Equally telling was Vice President Chaney’s role–uncovered by the Washington Post–in overriding scientists’ efforts to restore endangered Salmon in the Klamath Basin by redirecting water from the Klamath River, and the fish, to agribusiness. Only after 90,000 fish had died was this decision reversed by the courts.

When it comes to the realm of politics, value free science may not be the goal to strive for. Perhaps what is needed instead is value added science.

Where do we go from here? When it comes to the realm of politics, value free science may not be the goal to strive for. Perhaps what is needed instead is value added science. Building on Habermas’ model of the public sphere, value added science might be conceived of as the product of a dialogue among diverse actors–hard scientists, social scientists, and value based interests alike. However, instead of taking place in local coffee houses, the discussion might be organized and orchestrated within the government itself. A dialogue that links interests and scientific analyses in an open, transparent fashion, adds tremendous value to the political debate while identifying and enhancing the array of subject matter ripe for scientific investigation. This idea is hardly far-fetched. One need only consider the successes of the National Academy of Science and the former Office of Technology Assessment.

The Self and Society

For me growing up, SOCIETY was not an abstraction: it was very real. I didn’t need to read Durkheim to understand social facts. My mother was a constant reminder. The purpose of life, she said, was to leave Society better than one finds it. And, to me, coming from her, that was a Fact!

The purpose of life, she said, was to leave Society better than one finds it. And, to me, coming from her, that was a Fact! 

No wonder, then, that–in deciding the direction of my future studies–I was drawn to the social sciences. By sampling these disciplines, I hoped to discover my true place in the world. The result? I found economics especially reassuring because, according to economists, individuals and outcomes were clearly defined and predictable. Nonetheless, I kept asking myself, where in all of this is the social order? On the other hand, my sociology courses–taught in the tradition of Talcott Parsons–were all about social order. However, the emphasis on continuity and consensus came at the expense of individual agency and the possibility for radical upheaval–a real disadvantage, given the revolutionary changes that occurred throughout the late sixties and early seventies, in which I enthusiastically took part.

A Sixties Collage

A Sixties Collage

Political science seemed to me, at the time, to be the ideal discipline–the most holistic and relevant to events occuring around me. Not only did political science focus on individuals, groups, and institutions; it also characterized and sought to explain the conflict among them. Alas, however, the failure of academic political scientists to correctly interpret the War in VietNam, and to develop appropriate strategies to cope with it, precipitated the discipline’s tumultuous retreat behind the seemingly safe bastions of methodological individualism, manageable, reductionist questions, and strict quantitative analysis. Fortunately, for me, I ended up at the The Office of Technology Assessment, where addressing real-world problems took precedence over disciplinary disagreements.

In the years that followed, I discovered that finding the real me was by no means a matter of identifying the right theory. But neither was my identity a biological or sociological given. To the contrary, as I now know as a result of years of life’s experience, I am emergent: my being is constantly evolving in the context of my life experiences and interactions with others–marriage, motherhood, friendship, work and play.

To the contrary, as I now know as a result of years of life experience, “I” am emergent: my being is constantly evolving in the context of my life experiences and interactions with others. 

Imagine, then, what pleasure I had this summer reading R. Keith Sawyers book, Social Emergence: Societies as Complex Systems. In his book, Sawyer not only rescues Durkheim from his critics; he also provides a theoretical basis for the way that I now think about myself in relationship to society. Tracing Durkheim’s concept of social facts back to the notion of emergentism Sawyer contends that Durkheim has been misinterpreted by those who viewed his work through the lens of Talcott Parsons’ value integration. Sawyer argues, instead, that Durkheim, as well as Comte, conceived of ‘society’ and the ‘individual’ in a complex, emergent relationship–the product of continuous interaction and reaction.

My mother’s emphasis on social facts can also be viewed in emergent, experiential terms. In her early thirties during the Depression, and her early forties, during the Second World War, my mother must have learned that the survival of SOCIETY had a lot to do with cooperative behavior, as well as sacrificing the individual for the sake of the whole.