The Limits to The Complexity of Social Systems by Duane Elgin and Robert A. Bushnell
“The demands on democratic government grow while the capacity of democratic government stagnates. This, it would appear, is the central dilemma of the governability of democracy which has manifested itself in Europe, North America, and Japan in the 1970s.” ~Report to the Trilateral Commission on the Governability of Democracies, 1975
“For a free society, the ultimate challenge of the foreseeable future will consist not simply in managing complexity but in keeping it within the bounds of understanding by the society’s citizens and their representatives in government”. ~Elliot Richardson, a seasoned bureaucrat, in his book, The Creative Balance (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1976)
Social systems tend to decline in performance as they become bigger, more complex, and increasingly incomprehensible. They also become less amenable to democratic control, and more vulnerable to disruption at key points. There now appears to be evidence that we may be pressing against the relative limits of our ability to manage large bureaucracies. Modern society must face up to the prospect that we may be reaching the limits of our capacity to manage exceedingly large and complex bureaucracies (these bureaucracies are concerned primarily with the delivery and consumption of public services).
After an extensive review of literature pertaining to the problems of bureaucracies, the Center for the Study of Social Policy (a division of SRI, Inc., in Menlo Park, California) selected 16 propositions as a useful sample of the problems associated with the growth of social systems. Summarizing, it is hypothesized that if a social system grows to extreme levels of scale, complexity, and interdependence, the following characteristics will tend to become manifest:
- Diminishing relative capacity to comprehend the overall system.
- Diminishing level of public participation in decision-making.
- Declining public access to decision-makers.
- Growing participation of experts in decision-making.
- Disproportionate growth in costs of coordination and control.
- Increasingly de-humanized interactions between people and the system.
- Increasing levels of alienation.
- Increasing challenges to basic value premises.
- Increasing levels of unexpected and counterintuitive consequences of action.
- Increasing system rigidity.
- Increasing number and uncertainty of disturbing events.
- Narrowing span of diversity of innovation.
- Declining legitimacy of leadership.
- Increasing system vulnerability.
- Declining overall performance of the system.
- Growing deterioration of the overall system unlikely to be perceived.
1. The relative ability of any individual to comprehend the system will tend to diminish.
“For a free society, the ultimate challenge of the foreseeable future will consist not simply in managing complexity but in keeping it within the bounds of understanding by the society’s citizens and their representatives in government.” ~Elliot Richardson, a seasoned bureaucrat, in his book, The Creative Balance (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1976)
The knowledge required to comprehend both the discrete parts and their interrelationships will tend to increase geometrically, but due to the decision-maker’s biological, mechanical, and temporal limitations, the knowledge available is likely to grow relatively slowly . . . . many of the larger bureaucracies are plagued with the unspoken but undeniable feeling among management and staff that no one truly is in control, that the dynamics of the organization are beyond the comprehension of any one individual . . . . Nor does the mere aggregation of information necessarily contribute to the understanding of the system . . . . It is possible to be information-rich and knowledge-poor as a manager or consumer of public services . . . . Thus the size and complexity of social systems may jeopardize representative democracy itself . . . . (with the increase in the following public opinion:) “Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on.”
2. The capacity and motivation of the public to participate in decision-making processes will tend to diminish.
To the extent that the cost (in time or money) of informing oneself for participation in the system is substantial and the perceived return from that information is trivial, then a rational response is to remain ignorant and passive . . . . Therefore, we reach the startling conclusion that it is irrational for most citizens to acquire political information for the purposes of voting. Hence, ignorance of politics is not a result of unpatriotic apathy; rather it is a highly rational response to the facts of political life in a large democracy . . . . (thus) the power and willingness to make decisions are shifted from the public to the systems managers.
3. The public’s access to decision-makers will tend to decline.
Regardless of the size of his constituency, there is only one mayor, one governor, one Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and one President . . . . The essential point is that nothing can overcome the dismal fact that as the number of citizens increases the proportion who can participate directly in discussions with their top leaders must necessarily grow smaller and smaller . . . . (resulting in the increase of the following public opinion:) “What I think doesn’t really count much any more”, “People with power are out to take advantage of me”,”People running the country really dot care what happens to me”.
4. Participation of experts in decision-making will tend to grow disproportionately, but this expertise will only marginally counteract the effects of geometrically mounting knowledge requirements for effective management of the bureaucracy.
Unless we (in America) can succeed in [managing complexity], we shall lose our power to make intelligent – or at least deliberate – choices. We shall no longer be self-governing. We shall instead be forced to surrender more and more of our constitutional birthright – the office of citizenship – to an expert elite. We may hope it is a benevolent elite. But even if it is not, we shall be dependent on it anyway. Rather than participating in the process of choice, we shall be accepting the choices made for us.
Moreover, it is possible that exponentially growing needs for knowledge in decision-making will eventually overwhelm the expert as well as the decision-maker. The expert ultimately faces the same human limitations to his acquisition of knowledge as does the decision-maker and the general public. Further, there appear to be intrinsic limits to the assistance that experts can render to decision-makers. Expert knowledge may be so fragmented, as a result of specialization, that it is below the necessary threshold of aggregation to be useful to the decision-maker. Also, the information may be exceedingly complex and difficult to transmit efficiently from expert to decision-maker. Accordingly, expert information may be ignored for very rational reasons.
5. The costs of coordinating and controlling the system will tend to grow disproportionately.
Initial increases in scale allow greater efficiency by facilitating specialization and division of labor and by allowing the use of more advanced technologies (which may only become cost-effective for larger organizations). As the bureaucracy grows and top management becomes increasingly divorced from day-to-day functioning of the system, decision-making responsibility and authority must be delegated to successively lower levels within the system. At some scale of activity, the number of units in the system will grow so large that the costs of coordinating and controlling those units (increases in staff, paper work, travel budgets, and communication costs) will more than offset any increases in efficiency that accrue from the larger scale.
6. An attempt may be made to improve efficiency by depersonalizing the system.
Since human diversity adds enormously to a systemfs complexity, a potential means of coping with complexity is to reduce the diversity of human interactions within the system. Rational management techniques may attempt to depersonalize the system by standardizing human responses within the organization. To the extent that efficiency is valued over human diversity, the human interaction with the system must acquire attributes that increasingly conform to the systemic preference for uniformity and predictability. Employees, constituents, or clients will tend thus to become increasingly depersonalized in their interactions with the system.
7. The level of alienation will tend to increase.
“I feel left out of things going on around me” . . . . The mood for business leadership is strikingly similar to that of other groups in one important respect: a feeling of impotence, a belief that its future is in the hands of outside forces . . . . It is a remarkable society in which so many groups, even the “Establishment,” feel that “someone else” is in charge, “someone else” is to blame for whatever goes wrong.
Sociologist Melvin Seeman postulates five historical trends that may form the causal basis for the emergence of alienation:
- The expansion of scale of population and social institutions.
- The decline of kinship and the increase of anonymity in social relations.
- Increased physical and social mobility.
- Social differentiation arising from specialization and division of labor.
- Decline of traditional social forms and roles.
8. The appropriateness of basic value premises underlying the social system will tend to be increasingly challenged.
To the extent that large, complex social systems have been created by value premises that have become functionally obsolete, then either the system must change to reflect the original values, or the basic value premises themselves will have to change to reflect the character of the changed system. Social conflict will increase until either the value premises or the system itself is changed so as to reestablish congruence between them . . . . Contemporary challenges to the legitimacy of traditional value premises have assumed such forms as women’s liberation, black power, third world ethics, the antiwar movement, the hippy counterculture, the flourishing of Eastern religions, and the conservation and ecology movement.
9. The number and significance of unexpected consequences of policy actions will increase.
To the extent that diminished levels of systems comprehension force managers to apply relatively simple solutions to increasingly complex problems, then unexpected consequences of policy action may result . . . . In social systems, political pressures often favor short-term policy measures, but when short-term actions, which previously produced favorable results, are redoubled without regard for their long-term consequences, changed circumstances within and without the system may produce both unexpected and even disastrous results. With smaller and less interdependent bureaucracies, a wrong decision has only limited consequences because of the small scale and loose coupling between social systems. With very large and highly interdependent systems, however, a wrong decision can have far-reaching implications as its impact affects a pervasive and tightly interconnected web of socio-economic systems.
10. The system will tend to become more rigid since the form that it assumes inhibits the emergence of new forms.
The passion for size, reach, and growth is the soul of all bureaucracy. Within government, the fiercest battles are waged not over principles and ideas but over jurisdiction – control of old and new programs. Radically new pronouncements and policies are often digested with equanimity, but at the slightest hint of a threat to the existing structure, the entire bureaucratic mechanism mobilizes for defense. Almost invariably, the threat is defeated or simply dissolves in fatigue, confusion, and the inevitable diversion of executive energies.
11. The number and intensity of perturbations to the system will tend to in-crease disproportionately.
As the number and diversity of activities within a system increase and relationships among the activities are established, the number of interconnections within the system will tend to increase geometrically. If a significant proportion of those connections are vulnerable to disruption, then the number of perturbations could increase more rapidly than increases in scale.
12. The diversity of innovation will tend to decline.
As a system grows, the span of diversity of innovation will tend to constrict, because innovation is confined within the narrowing boundaries of what the system can assimilate without itself undergoing fundamental change. Further, as the system acts to ensure its own survival, diversity of innovation may become confused with disorder. Moreover, it seems plausible that as social forms become increasingly concretized, greater reliance will be placed on technological rather than social innovation to cope with social problems. Consequently, both the breadth and the depth of innovation will tend to decline.
13. The legitimacy of leadership will tend to decline.
To the extent that a system manager must draw his power to govern from the consent of the people, then, within limits, he must demonstrate to his constituency his ability to manage the system well. As the system grows in scale and complexity, relative levels of comprehension at all levels may decline, counterexpected and unexpected consequences may mount, system resilience may diminish, and, for other reasons, the performance of the system may decline. The public will hold the manager of the system responsible for the poor performance. Then, according to the rules of the game, other leaders who wish to be elected will endeavor to persuade the public that they have the “right” and “true” answers to solve the mounting problems of systems malfunction. Thus, a doubly dangerous situation is created: there is the appearance of understanding (in order to get elected or to retain power), but the reality of understanding may be diminishing. Public expectations for effective decision-making may be inordinately high at the same time that the relative capacity to make informed decisions declines. As the gap between expectation and reality grows more pronounced, the legitimacy of the decision-maker will diminish . . . . Leadership is in disrepute in democratic societies.
14. The vulnerability of the system will tend to increase.
“We now live in and by the web of an enormously complicated, intensely interrelated technology, the whole no greater than its parts and its strongest parts at the mercy of its weakest links. This is a way of life that depends absolutely on order and continuity and predictability. But it happens that we have simultaneously reached a point of discontinuity in the political and social relations of men, where little is predictable and disorder spreads.” . . . . One hijacker can capture a multimillion dollar airplane and catapult nations into political confrontation. The shutdown of a single brake plant can stop production at major auto assembly plants throughout the country. A localized power grid failure can plunge the entire eastern seaboard of the U.S. into darkness. The consequences of otherwise isolated and relatively insignificant events, therefore, jeopardize the continued functioning of large systems sensitive to the slightest disruption.
15. The performance of the bureaucracy will tend to decline.
If we assume that the previously stated propositions are valid, then as a social system grows to extremes of scale we would expect that the costs of coordination and control will escalate, the comprehensibility of the system will decline, the number and intensity of perturbations will increase, and so on. When these individual problems reach a critical threshold and thereby collectively and intensively reinforce each other, the decline of system performance will be accelerated . . . . There is no lack of opinion that the performance of many of our largest bureaucracies is rapidly deteriorating.
16. The full extent of declining performance of the system is not likely to be perceived.
In most large bureaucracies there are few reliable measures of systems performance. This is partially attributable to the fact that the complexity of the system obscures the operation of the system. Also, the bureaucrat, in order to acquire or retain power, may minimize the significance of malfunctions and error, and maximize the public visibility of his own achievements. Further, there may be delayed, ambiguous and conflicting feedback concerning the effectiveness of various programs. These and other forces make it difficult to monitor the performance of a massive bureaucracy and thereby make it unlikely that most persons will be able to perceive the true extent to which performance is declining.
Keywords : complex systems, social systems, complexity, systems thinking, complex theory, bureaucracy, government, democracy, limits to complexity, people’s participation
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