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. Â Some thoughts come to mind in this regard.Â
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 Â architecture of the policy making arena must provide links across diverse policy domains.Â
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 Â 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. Â 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.Â
The US communication policy arena lacks such an interface, and policy making suffers as a result. Â Jurisdiction is divided among numerous agencies, whose independent actions often lead to conflicting outcomes. Â 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. Â
The outstanding question, therefore, is where might we look for such a policy interface? Â Not surprisingly, given my own background, I would look to a government agency such as the Office of Technology Assessment,Â 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.