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National Opinion Centre

Complexity: Political Myth or Political Game-Changer?

There is an old debate in politics over the “Great Man” theory of history. In this view, history is made by individuals who amass power and then have the foresight to use it to change the course of events for the better. Thus Abraham Lincoln ended slavery and John A Macdonald founded a country. Both can fairly be counted as Great Men.

I believe in something analogous, which I’ll call the “Problem of Our Times” view of history. It holds that every era has one or two key issues that essentially frame how people see all the rest.  Examples might be the rise of science in the 1600s, democracy in the late 1700s, and the Cold War in the 1950-60s.

I believe the problem of our times is “complexity.” Over the last few decades, new forces such as globalization and the rise of digital technologies have transformed our society, making it increasingly complex. As a result, we see issues very differently from how policymakers saw them 40 or 50 years ago.

It’s a controversial view and some people disagree with it. They say that, although we talk more about complexity today, nothing has really changed. Issues were always complex. Just ask historians about World War I or the OPEC crisis of the 1970s.

So who is right and does it really matter?

Yes, it matters. As I argued last week in a column on Michael Chong’s Reform Bill, if complexity really is rising, we need to make room for it in our views on policymaking and political representation. I’d like to make a few more points about this.

For starters, I am not denying that events such as the WW I, the OPEC crisis or the fall of the Roman Empire were complex. My point is that issues today have a kind of complexity that parliamentary government was not designed to manage. This results from three things:

Organizational Size: While on holiday in Scotland last summer, I visited Edinburgh Castle, which is spectacularly situated on the cone of a dormant volcano. At various times in the past, the entire government of Scotland was run from within the castle walls.

As I toured the palace, I thought about the difference between running this tiny government and a major department in the Government of Canada. Employment and Social Development, for example, has 24,000 employees, hundreds of classifications and levels, and delivers some $87 billion worth of programs.

The difference is striking. If we had to use the same tools and processes to run EDC as Edinburgh’s government, the wheels would grind to a halt. It’s a basic principle of management that as firms grow so does organizational complexity—and new tools and processes are needed to adjust. Over the last four decades we have seen explosive organizational growth and change in our society, but the basic tools and processes of Parliament have changed little.

Organizational Interdependence:  In the 1970s, the Government of Ontario created TV Ontario to achieve certain policy goals around culture and education. Because the federal government regulates the airwaves it also issues TVO’s broadcasting license. As a result, Ontario’s policies in this area are now deeply entangled with federal broadcasting policy—to the point where a policy change in one automatically affects the other.

While organizational interdependence is not new, digital technologies and globalization are generating whole new forms of interdependence, from international supply chains to social media networks. The interactions are now reverberating across policy space.

Organizational Speed: Today, events move with blinding speed and, because of interdependence, are often impossible to contain, as we saw with the near collapse of the global financial system in 2007-08 or the SARS epidemic in 2002-03.

I believe these three factors—organizational size, interdependence and speed—have combined to create a new policy environment that is a game-changer for parliamentary democracy. An issue like climate change is no longer just an issue, but a diffuse network of issues that stretches across policy space. Climate change is as much about the economy—and even social and cultural practices—as the environment.

Today, when experts tell governments to “bust out of the policy silos,” they mean that an effective strategy to address issues like climate change requires collaboration. This could involve various departments, different governments, key members of the business and NGO communities, and even ordinary citizens.

Moreover, collaboration is not just about forming a plan, but also implementing it. In this new world, government often can’t deliver the plan alone. Others have a role to play. Getting buy-in from the right partners thus is critical—and complicated.

While there has been much talk in recent years about the need for evidence-based policy, evidence is only one part of such a process. There are many issues where evidence is inconclusive, so it is often not enough to reach agreement on a plan. When evidence runs out, we fill the gap with dialogue and discussion—which is where political leadership and representation come in.

Sometimes these discussions can be carried out at the Cabinet Table or within the walls of Parliament, by duly elected representatives. But many big issues are just too interdependent and messy. They spill over from one policy field to another, from one government to another, or from government into the private and third sectors and even communities.

When this happens, Parliament is not enough. MPs and ministers quickly find they are reaching beyond their jurisdiction and lack the authority to make all the necessary decisions. The only solution is to expand the process and engage the people who can—and often they come from outside government. Who they are or how many of them we need will vary with the issue.

Some people worry that these new processes will put too much power in the hands of the bureaucrats. We must be sure they do not. While the public service has a very important role to play here, a return to the elitist and secretive world of mandarins and ministers would solve nothing.

Parliamentary committees, on the other hand, often would be natural leaders for such processes. This would put them back on the forefront of policymaking in a new and exciting way.

So I believe policymaking today is a more complex task today than a few decades ago and that parliamentary government badly needs to adjust. People who think complexity is a constant will see no reason for such change. In their view, the only real problem is the PMO’s control of the Commons. If MPs take back control, they say, all will be well.

We shall see.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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