03 October 2007

Complexity demands an outcome-based approach

Government thinks in terms of institutions, and that can create problems. For instance, it's not at all clear that the best way of raising literacy is to increase funds for schools. Or that to reduce crime, the best use of our scarce resources is to fund more police. The linkages are too complex for any single body to grasp; especially ones like government agencies, which typically operate top-down programmes that however badly they fail, are never terminated. No complex policymaking environment is immune:

From the Gospel of Food by Barry Glassner (quoting research, and words, of Ichiro Kawachi):
[R]esearch shows that death and sickness rates from cancer, heart disease, and other major illnesses in the US are higher in states where participation in civic life is low, racial prejudice is high, or a large gap exists between the incomes of the rich and poor and of women and men. 'Policies that appear to have little to do with health, like macroeconomic policies to reduce the level of income inequality, can have a major impact on driving down the rates of illness in society.' (page 30) (My emphasis.)
Diverse, adaptive approaches are needed, but they must be subordinated to outcomes: if they do not help achieve the targeted outcome, they should not continue to be funded. Only markets markets give investors the incentive to explore and experiment with diverse approaches to compelex social and environmental problems - and to terminate failing projects. The contrast with government when dealing with complex problems is stark.

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