PSI in Washington DC: Evaluating complex policies

PSI’s Martha Bicket took part in the 8th Annual Dupont Summit 2015 on Science, Technology and Environmental Policy in Washington DC earlier this month. As part of the Budding Scholars Conference on Policy and Complex Systems, Martha talked about methods for evaluating interactions between complex policies in the field of environmental sustainability.

The unsustainable rate at which we are consuming resources is a particularly challenging problem for policy. A large number of diverse yet interconnected policy areas, actors, sectors, and biological, physical and chemical processes affect and are affected by resource use. These make it impossible to predict – let alone control – the outcomes of policy interventions. In this way, the sustainability challenge shares the characteristics of what we call a complex system.

To better address the sustainability challenge, there is growing interest in the power of carefully designed groups of policies, or policy mixes. But how do we find out which combinations are best? In DC, Martha discussed the crucial role of policy evaluation in learning ‘what works’ and presented a short scoping review of methods for evaluating interactions between policies.

Although she has uncovered some promising methods from other fields, Martha’s preliminary conclusions are that further work is crucial, including interdisciplinary collaboration to share and further develop these and other new possibilities. “Finally”, she adds, “as well as new methods, we need a broader change in the mindset of policymakers, researchers and evaluation practitioners working with complex systems: instead of predictability, they should look for patterns; instead of seeking to control, they should focus on how to influence these systems; and rather than cold-hard facts and deterministic explanations, they should seek insights and be willing to make reasoned decisions based on the available information”.

With a coalition of UK government departments, agencies and research councils seeking to launch a new internationally-leading centre to pioneer, test and promote innovative and inclusive methods for policy evaluation across the energy-environment-food nexus, the contribution is particularly timely.