Governance Networks as Complex Systems Dynamics

How do you hold a hundred tons of water in the air with no visible means of support? You build a cloud.

—K. C. Cole (1999, p. 6)

In this chapter we describe governance networks in terms of complex systems dynamics. The application of systems frameworks to the description of governance networks allows for the consideration of external variables that help shape the structure and functions of governance networks. Systems dynamics have been characterized as a series of inputs, processes, outputs, and outcomes. A systems perspective also allows for the characterization of both positive and negative feedback that contribute to the regulation and governance of governance networks (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993).

Systems theory has become a widely utilized framework for understanding organizations and social networks. Systems metaphors and concepts have been used across the natural and social sciences. Although there is some controversy around who originated systems theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy is often credited with introducing general systems theory to English-speaking audiences (Midgley, 2000; Hammond, 2003).

Systems theory has been used substantially across organizational psychology (Katz and Kahn, 1978; Mintzberg, 1979, 1983), organizational evaluation and intervention (Midgley, 2000), and management and organizational development (Scott, 1987; Senge, 1990). In public administration and policy studies, systems concepts have been applied to policy processes and subsystems (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993), the articulation of governance systems (Pierre and Peters, 2005), and the study of emergency management networks (Comfort, 2002). Systems concepts are embedded in the performance measurement literature, particularly when the “standard vernacular” of process, output, and outcome measures is used (Frederickson and Frederickson, 2006). Systems concepts also enter into the literature pertaining to organizational learning (Senge et al., 1994; Argyris and Schon, 1995) and descriptions of how knowledge is managed across systems and subsystems (McNabb, 2007). Systems have been ascribed to the group (Senge et al., 1994), organizational (Katz and Kahn, 1978; Mintzberg, 1979; Scott, 1987), and interorganizational (Mintzberg, 1983; Comfort, 2002) levels.

There is a great deal of overlap between network and systems theory and concepts. Our discussion of multiple social scales, multiplex social ties, and operational and policy functions has been presented in light of assumptions regarding the relationships between parts of a network and the network as a whole. The principles of network holism discussed earlier in this chapter are, essentially, assumptions derived from the basic tenants of systems analysis. Governance networks have boundaries and relationships with their external environments. They are shaped by input-output flows and feedback mechanisms. Governance networks are systems whose internal operations are shaped by forces and factors that occur as systems dynamics.

Systems dynamics may be distinguished from network dynamics by shifting frames of reference. The kinds of network concepts we discussed in previous chapters presented network dynamics as the accumulation of relationships between a complex array of social actors and ties. Our discussion of the kinds of functions taken on across a governance network shifts our focus toward the kind of processes that contribute to the joint productions of common goals, aligned practices, and collective products—outputs as well as outcomes. A systems view moves us from thinking of networks as a “tinker toy” configuration of nodes and links, to cycles of events and processes that materialize as the result of networked interactions.

In their classic text The Social Psychology of Organizations, Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn provide an extensive introduction of general systems theory to the social sciences. In describing how organizations are systems, they introduce a set of common characteristics found in “open” systems. They assert that “systems theory is basically concerned with problems of relationship, of structure, and of interdependence rather than with the constant attributes of objects” (Katz and Kahn, 1978, p. 24). They describe social systems as “cycles of events” that unfold between parts or subsystems of the system. When considered in terms of cycles of events, “structure is to be found in an interrelated set of events which return upon themselves to complete and renew a cycle of activities____It is events rather than things

which are structured, so that structure is a dynamic rather than static concept”

Systems dynamics impacting governance networks

Figure 7.1 Systems dynamics impacting governance networks.

(p. 24). “Events are the observable nodal points in such cycles, and can be conceptualized as structures” (1978, p. 6).

Figure 7.1 encompasses some of the basic systems dynamics that we discuss in this section. We begin with a review of the literature pertaining to the permeability of network structures. We discuss how open social systems maintain an exchange of energy with their wider external environments and the ways in which a network’s degree of openness relates to the kinds of boundaries that are established between governance networks and their external environment. The roles and influences of the external environment on a governance network are considered in light of the accountability structures that govern network actions. Figure 7.1 visually represents the relationship between a governance network and its external environment.

Systems are discussed here as relatively simplified models of reality (Miller and Page, 2007) that are arranged through a series of nested subsystems that are dynamic, adaptive, evolving, emergent, and resilient. More complex systems, which most governance networks are, defy simple linear explanation (Meadows, 2008).

Open social systems receive inputs from the external environment, which in turn shape the range of internal processes and functions taken on by different configurations of network actors. These inputs may be classified as capital resource inflows. We tie the processes and practices carried out within the “black box” of the network back to its operational and policy functions. A governance network will generate some kinds of outputs that it shares or distributes to the external environment. These outputs may or may not lead to a set of intended or unintended consequences or outcomes. A picture of systems dynamics emerges that views them as cycles of events involving the input to throughput to output to outcome cycle that is now common in organizational evaluation and performance management literature.

We then address the role that feedback loops play in regulating the behaviors of governance networks. We discuss the role that negative and positive feedback play in “steering” networks. We then briefly touch on some of the major concepts that the complexity sciences bring to the study of complex systems. Some of these concepts include adaptation, self-organization, and emergence. We conclude with a look at the relationship between governance mechanisms and systems dynamics. We believe that this discussion of systems dynamics paves the way for our discussions of administrative, accountability, and performance considerations, all of which will be explored through the context of systems and network analysis.

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