Negative Feedback

Negative feedback is best described in terms of controls placed over the system that come into effect when the system deviates from a goal. “When a system’s negative feedback discontinues, its steady state vanishes, and at the same time its boundary disappears and the system terminates” (Miller, 1955, p. 211). The example of the regulation of household ambient air temperature illustrates the case of negative feedback. The norm or threshold ambient temperature is the

Principals of feedback control applied to home heating system. (Source

Figure 7.4 Principals of feedback control applied to home heating system. (Source: Carver and Scheier, On the Self-Regulation of Behavior, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 13.) Printed with permission from Cambridge University Press.

goal. When the room temperature as measured by the thermostat falls below the goal or temperature target, the heating system reacts by turning the furnace on. The elements of the system are altered to bring the system back into equilibrium or homeostasis. Similarly, in complex governance networks systems dealing with such policy domains as emergency management, when feedback information about the fragility or resilience of decaying infrastructure fails to reach emergency managers, exogenous shocks such as Katrina can result in system-wide collapse (Koliba, Mills, and Zia, accepted for publication).

In the realm of governance networks, negative feedback may be viewed in terms of sanctions or punishments within social systems. The use of regulations to correct deviant behaviors and the role of incentives to reward desirable behaviors are often described as some of the basic building blocks of public policy. Within the context of social systems, negative feedback may come in the form of information that is received by the system that then enables the system to correct its deviations from course. In Chapter 10 we discuss how negative feedback may be used to describe how performance measures and performance management systems may be used to regulate governance network behavior.

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