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Complexity Literacy Cat-Ratings

This is an experiment in assessing the understanding of complex systems thinking - Complexity Literacy - in documents related to public sector challenges. The purpose is to promote conversation about an essentially simple idea that, if we all understood, would make a huge difference to the effectiveness with which we tackle organisational and societal challenges.

Skip to the ratings below...


These ratings are based on the Clock/Cat metaphor that I use to explain complexity and is the genesis of The Clock and the Cat podcast. The essence of the metaphor is about deciding the right action for a particular challenge. At its simplest level it differentiates between complicated (Clock) and complex (Cat) situations. Complicated situations demand an analytic approach with a programmatic implementation of change: complex situations demand collaborative learning and incremental, emergent change. To avoid doubt, complex means something specific - a different class of problem - not just something super-complicated. For more see Government doesn't get complexity - written evidence I submitted to the House of Commons inquiry “Whitehall: capacity to address future challenges”.

Whilst the public sector tends to be good at dealing with Clock-type problems we struggle with Cat ones. This is because we generally don’t recognise them as such and inappropriately apply the same Clock approach to them. This argument isn’t to diminish analytical/programmatic approaches to problems; it's an attempt to draw attention to the idea that they aren’t the single answer to every problem. Cat-type problems need different thinking and a blend of approaches. To emphasise, applying Cat-thinking to Clock problems is equally inappropriate: collaborative learning and emergent change aren't, for example, particularly important in building hospitals or running railways.

You should know that these ratings are decided somewhat unscientifically and subjectively. Please accept low ratings as a gentle nudge and a prompt for conversation rather than a denigration or offer of mortal combat. And please forgive the brazen and unsophisticated approach, obviously.


Here's what the ratings mean:

🕒🕒🕒🕒🕒 - All clock. No discernable complex systems thinking.

😺🕒🕒🕒🕒 - Mentions complex systems.

😺😺🕒🕒🕒 - Evidence of comprehension of complex systems thinking.

😺😺😺🕒🕒 - Something between 2 Cats and 4 Cats.

😺😺😺😺🕒 - Complex systems thinking being applied consistently and appropriately throughout.

😻😻😻😻😻 - A contender for a prestigious "Moggy" at the annual Clock/Cat Awards Ceremony.


Four documents are rated below, each with an explanation. Take a look at the documents - they're available from pages linked from the titles and thumbnails. All of the documents talk about complexity. Ignore that they serve different purposes, but compare the language and the mindset with which they deal with complexity.

Transforming Rehabilitation
Report by the National Audit Office - 2019

This report is about the Ministry of Justice’s reforms to probation services. The report criticises the MoJ for failing to meet targets to reduce reoffending. Whilst the approach taken by the MoJ is seemingly entirely Clock, so too is the NAO's assessment. The report correctly identifies that introducing "significant change into a complex system ... created significant risks" but there is little advice that matches my sense of how to go about approaching complexity. The recommendations centre on doing more analysis and improving planning: Clock-type things. Whilst there’s always a need for good analysis and planning, in complex situations it’s vital also to take complexity into account (and remember I mean something specific by complexity). It’s possible that slavishly following the NAO’s advice would not improve things and actually may compound the problem. For its single mention of the term complex system this report scrapes 1 Cat.


Capita's contracts with the Ministry of Defence
Report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee - 2019 

This report is about MoD contracts held by Capita for recruitment and housing. It talks of the complexity of the situation and of targets not being achieved and sums up the problems as weaknesses in contract management. Typically it urges the simultaneous implementation of "radical new ideas" and significant performance improvements; and it recommends the setting of more targets and more rigorous enforcement of them. Whilst there will absolutely be a need for new ideas and that the ultimate goal is better performance, there is little evidence of the understanding of complexity, and in particular what will be needed to enable radical improvements to emerge. No cats at all.


The need for a complex systems model of evidence for public health
Paper by Harry Rutter et al - Lancet 2017 

This is a paper about the need for new thinking about evidence in public health. It explains the challenges of public health in complex system terms and the changes needed to respond appropriately. It points out the difficulties with linear research approaches and evidence related to single-issue interventions; and advocates the use of complexity-friendly techniques like agent-based modelling. It recognises the change of the mindset needed for this to happen as itself a complex-system challenge and for example stresses the need for editors/reviewers of professional journals to develop literacy in complexity. Slam dunk - 5 cats.


Exploring the New World - Funding and Commissioning in Complexity
Report by Collaborate CIC - 2019 

This research report looks at the challenges of funding social change in the future. It identifies problems being caused by top-down programmatic delivery of change, target-based governance and market-like funding of New Public Management. It identifies the need for more emergent collaborative approaches that better respond to complexity. It reports on developing governance systems that are based on trusting relationships rather than measurement of outcomes; and on new ways of coordination, like self-organising teams, that operate as networks rather than the management hierarchies that dominate at the moment. It provides examples of how these new approaches are working in practice and provides advice on handling the associated procurement challenges. Tibbles - The Clock and the Cat podcast cat - would like to make kittens with this report.