Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Understandings and a sense of place - my visits to the Battye Library and Rottnest Island

Whilst in Perth I managed to squeeze in several hours in the Battye Library on the trail of my great-grandfather, Gus (Augustus Horatio Arthur!) Coleman who taught at primary schools in WA from 1900-1909. I also managed an overnight stay on Rottnest Island, 12 miles off the coast from Freemantle, which was the last school in WA at which Gus taught. He went home (to NSW) on Christmas leave in 1909 a broken man never to return to WA. In fact he died in 1913 aged just 42 leaving a widow and five children. Having heard stories of her time in WA from my grandmother, Rottnest had stayed with me - stories of Quokkas and aboriginal Australians (the history is quite shameful - it was in fact a prison for aboriginals for many years with about 365 deaths in custody!). I had imagined the stay on Rottnest to have been a significant part of my grandmother's life in WA but the records show that she and her family only lived there for a bit over a month at the end of 1909. By this time the prison and the boy's reform school had been closed and the island was already becoming the leisure and tourist destination it is today.

I did however locate the school in which Gus must have taught and the house in which the family would have lived. Although in a parlous state, in terms of funding, the archival material available enables those who are interested to recapture through research an understanding of the Europeanisation of this continent and thus to better appreciate our place in it. The photos are a selection from this journey into place [they include (i) the chapel/school where Gus taught; (ii) a triple terrace, one of which was the teacher's house; (iii) a Quokka and (iv) a view from Bathurst Point.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

Systemic and complexity perspectives a highlight of IPAA conference, Perth

From Monday last I have been in Perth presenting at the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) National Conference. The aptly named conference 'Western reflections: conversations on the place of Australian Public Services in a changing world' went off smoothly. With the backing of Lynn Allen and her program organising group there has been a strong contingent of systems and complexity thinkers leading the various sessions. The speakers all seem to have been well received - or at least provoked some form of engagement. Plenary speakers included Linda Scott of Primed who started with an engaging theatre piece purpose-designed for the conference around a water development scenario based in WA. The two day conference was followed by a Policy in Action: Researchers and Practitioners Forum led off by Dave Snowden and then addressing the themes of mental health, cultural policy and water. Lynn is to be congratulated in creating the circumstances to re-awaken interest in systems and complexity approaches to public administration and to introduce (re-introduce?) it to IPAA. In WA Lynn and her colleague Trudi Lang offer a systems-based programme called 'Navigating the Maze'.

The text of my invited plenary follows (slides are available on request):

Appreciating Janus? A systemic inquiry for water-managing

Paper delivered by Ray Ison to The IPAA National Conference, Tuesday 18 September 2007


Janus was the Roman god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings. If Janus were to be assigned to the pantheon of contemporary gods on the basis of experience of early 21st century organisational life and governance he would probably become recognised as the god of dualism – of self negating either/ors such as east and west. Based on my experience of research within Europe relating to social learning, a new governance mechanism suitable for policy and practices for sustainable water management, I will make the case for considering Janus as the god of duality - of systemic wholes. Those present will be invited to begin a systemic inquiry into what it is that they do when they do what they do. Systemic inquiry, as a broader context for projects and programmes, and understandings based on dualities seem to offer what is needed when we live in a climate change world that demands administration and governance based on processes of co-evolution – people with their environment.

Keywords: systemic inquiry; social learning, water governance; knowledge transfer; policy practice.

Introducing Janus
Janus was the Roman god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings. What the Romans realised in admitting Janus to their Pantheon of Gods was the eternal flow and connectedness that is central to our world. Janus is an antidote to the trap of language that arises when we name, and then think of, things in isolation from the processes of which they are a part. The Romans would have realised that a sunrise in eastern Australia was part of the same process as a sunset in Western Australia – what differs is the way we choose to perceive and interpret what we have experienced. Thus a gate or door merely marks the transition from inside to outside; a story or conversation has a beginning and an ending but they are part of the same whole. The same can be claimed for ‘western reflections’!
A pathology – being in a trap
Hungarian born author and polymath Arthur Koestler explicated in his books The Ghost in the Machine and later Janus: A Summing Up what he called the ‘Janus Principle’. In these books he bridged concepts of reductionism and holism with his systemic theory of Open Hierarchical Systems based on holons – his term for wholes. He argued that holons in a holarchy have the dual tendency of integration and development and when out of balance they tend to a pathology – a trap of our own making. This slide exemplifies the systemic notion of a holarchy. If you think about it clearly the slide reveals a number of systemic concepts – the first of course is the layered, holonic structure, which also applies to our own thinking – we all have different perspectives from which the common act of talking past each other arises – often when this is done we may be speaking at different levels – at different levels of abstraction. Used with awareness moving up a level of abstraction can be used creatively to escape traps operating at the lower level. To move levels is also to move the boundary of your system of interest – there are emergent properties at higher levels not apparent at lower levels. For example I wonder what those of you in WA think about the so called National Water Plan which appears to have its boundary firmly drawn on the Murray-Darling basin? In my talk today I want to suggest the existence of a pathology in relation to water and its managing and in relation to the dominant ways of thinking about these issues – after all water is a part of a closed cycle and wherever humans choose to intervene there is the equivalent of an upstream and a downstream perspective.
The dualism/duality distinction
Admitting Janus to the pantheon of public administration gods is a choice to be made – in contemporary society prevailing discourses and practices too often ignore or reject the Janus Principle. In terms of current needs, as I perceive them, I want to incorporate into the Janus Principle an additional distinction, which rather than connecting upstream with downstream, or one level of abstraction with a higher or lower level, operates at the same logical level. The distinction is that between a dualism and a duality. We would invoke a dualism, an either/or choice, if in our thinking we saw east as distinct from and independent of west. Dualisms, presented as either/or choices are too common in our thinking, such as mind/body, public good/private good, objective/subjective; centralisation/decentralisation; rural/urban, explanation/explainer – there are many more. Dualisms often give rise to protracted and unproductive debate - they involve a negation – one element of the other – a process which is ultimately destructive. In contrast a duality arises whenever we see a complementary pair operating at the same logical level as contributing to some whole – a variation on the Janus metaphor.

The Chinese yin–yang symbol is often used to depict this unity/duality. At the Open University we in the Open Systems Research Group have drawn on our understanding of a duality to develop the logo for our research group and it is an understanding that also informs our research practices. Some common examples of a duality include the concepts predator and prey (from ecology) and in physics, wave-particle duality is a central concept of quantum mechanics. Wave-particle duality holds that light and matter can exhibit properties of both waves and of particles (whereas in the usual formulations of classical mechanics a given object is either a particle or a wave). The failure to appreciate Janus amongst our contemporary administrative practice gods gives rise to traps of our own making.
Systemic inquiry
How can we break out of traps of our own making? I contend that engaging in a systemic inquiry is one of the better ways to break out of the pathology that can arise when the Janus Principle does not operate. Systemic is one of the two adjectives derived from system - together systemic and systematic can form a duality although most commonly, if they are considered at all, they are treated as a dualism. Systemic inquiry proceeds by enacting a learning process with those who have a stake in a situation experienced as problematic or as presenting an opportunity. Systemic inquiry is a particular means of facilitating movement towards social learning[1]. It can be seen as a meta-platform or process for ‘project or programme managing’ in that it has a focus on (i) understanding situations in context and especially the history of the situation; (ii) addressing questions of purpose; (iii) clarifying and distinguishing ‘what’ from ‘how’ as well as addressing ‘why’; (iv) facilitating action that is purposeful and which is systemically desirable and culturally feasible and (v) developing a means to orchestrate practices across space and time which continue to address a phenomenon or phenomena of social concern when it is unclear at the start as to what would constitute an improvement.

The possibility of designing a systemic inquiry is open to anyone who is able to make a connection between a theoretical framework (in this case concerned with systems thinking and practice) a methodological approach and a given situation. Over the last five years we have been pursuing our research with the Environment Agency of England & Wales organised, even contractually, as a systemic inquiry. Our rationale for doing it this way was because:

  • we are often blind to our traditions of understanding
  • the nature of situations we are having to engage with
  • there is considerable rhetoric about being more joined-up, holistic, ‘integrated’ …but praxis (theory-informed practice) is weak or non-existent
  • we live in a ‘projectified-world’ and there is increasing evidence that ‘projects’ deal poorly with complex, long-term phenomena e.g. PRINCE2 project management system;
  • an inquiry-based approach enables managing and/or researching for emergence
  • ethics arise in context-related action

Jake Chapman has also made arguments as to why systemic approaches are needed to avoid system failure in government policies and practices.
Invitation to engage in a systemic inquiry
With this as background I now want to draw on the ‘Janus Principle’ and the distinction I have made between dualism and duality to invite you to join with me in beginning a systemic inquiry operating at two levels. I hope that by the end of my talk you may see fit to continue these inquiries, in whatever way you can, beyond the life of this conference.

The first is to inquire into what we collectively do when we set about managing water
The second is concerned with each of us and my starting question is: what is it that you do when you do what you do?

Consistent with the Janus principle I am inviting an inquiry into a situation of concern as well as, and at the same time, an inquiry into the inquirer. In advancing both inquiries I will draw on my own research and scholarship, and in relation to water, particularly my experiences in Europe since 2000.
Water – characteristics of the situation
Why have I issued these particular invitations? Well water is an issue of global concern as the following images depict:

  • Through climate change we are literally re-drawing our world
  • In the worlds fastest growing economy the water situation is not sustainable – glaciers, river degradation, availability
  • Our own rivers are not healthy
  • We are experiencing a period of the lowest rainfall on record – particularly in the dark brown areas
  • The Murray/Darling – as with many other rivers - is in dire circumstances;
  • Livelihoods are threatened- some are using crisis to describe the situation!
  • To act needs an appreciation of a complex of factors – a systemic approach
  • And at the same time we exacerbate the institutional and organisational complexity

I am sure all amongst you are affected in some way by the current water situation in Australia, whether through water use restrictions, friends or family who are irrigators or farmers, increased food prices, concerns about loss of environmental flows or involvement in developing new water-related policies or technologies. I would characterise the situation we are experiencing as essentially unknowable – it is a situation characterised by uncertainty, complexity, connectedness – or lack of it – controversy and multiple perspectives. These characteristics apply to all water catchments or basins.

Water is also a domain where the pathology associated with the Janus Principle is being played out. The prevalent tendency is to regard water as a commodity and to forget its role as a process. At some stage during your schooling I feel sure you were taught about the water cycle – it is one of the fundamental cycles on which all life exists. So whenever we talk about water we are using a linguistic shorthand (i.e. water as some thing) to talk about a process that is both local and global in its scale and distributed in time but which is a closed system. Whenever humans intervene in the water cycle to build dams, set up irrigation schemes etc then in theory the Janus principle should operate – there is always a whole to which an action is but a part! Of course many recognise what I have said and many inventive and creative things are being done – probably also here in WA. But for us as citizens and as a nation to be responsible then the circumstances for response-ability have to be created. It is my contention that our current understandings and how these are translated into practices, particularly through policy and institutions, in the institutional economics sense, are not conducive to creating the best circumstances for response-ability.

Before turning to our work in Europe particularly that associated with ‘social learning’ and the development and implementation of the European Water Framework directive let me turn briefly to my second inquiry invitation:

what is it that you do when you do what you do?

Practices (doings) arise through relationships
By inviting you to reflect on what you do when you do what you do I am inviting you to consider what you do in terms of a practice or set of practices. Let me demonstrate what I mean by asking you to answer the question:

How does walking arise as a practice?

[Pose possible answers to the audience; Do exercise]

In my experience few people answer my question about walking in terms of a practice that arises in the relationship between an organism – a human – and a medium – the floor. Thinking in terms of the dynamics of relationships seems particularly difficult for many. That this is so should be worrying. My explanation about walking serves as an analogy for co-evolution – whether of human beings with the world or for how we lay down our world in our doing – as elegantly captured in this Michael Leunig cartoon.
Traditions of understanding
As unique human beings we are part of a lineage and our history is a product of both ontogeny, of biological growth and development, and social development which I will call a tradition. Perhaps another way to describe this is that a tradition is the history of our being in the world. Traditions are important because our models of understanding grow out of traditions. I shall further define a tradition as a network of prejudices that provide possible answers and strategies for action. The word prejudices may be literally understood as a pre-understanding, so another way of defining tradition could be as a network of pre-understandings. Traditions are not only ways to see and act but a way to conceal.

Traditions in a culture embed what has, over time, been judged to be useful practice. The risk for any culture is that a tradition can become a blind spot when it evolves into practice lacking any manner of critical reflection being connected to it. The effects of blind spots can be observed at the level of the individual, the group, an organization, the nation or culture and in the metaphors and discourses in which we are immersed.
Knowledge transfer – a particular tradition
Let me exemplify what I mean by rather quickly unpacking the widespread notion of ‘knowledge transfer’ as it demonstrates a particular pathology and what I mean by traditions of understanding. In the mainstream view knowledge transfer is associated with the prevailing linear model of R&D. Both this model of R&D and ‘knowledge transfer’ as practices or policies are knowingly, or not, built on epistemological assumptions which are the same as in this cartoon – knowledge as commodity. These in turn are built on particular theoretical assumptions – the linear model of technology transfer and Everett Roger’s theory of the diffusion of innovations. The mainstream view is also built on particular metaphors associated with human communication – here are the main metaphors – and in relation to knowledge transfer the main metaphor is that of 'communication as signal transfer'. The prevalence of this metaphor is a legacy of the use by Heinz von Foerster of 'information' to replace 'signal transfer' when writing up the proceedings of the Macy conferences in the 1950s. Communication as information transfer is based on the mathematical model of Shannon and Weaver and it has linguistically, in terms of everyday use, become pervasive: Everett Rogers, in his preface to the third edition of "Diffusion of Innovations", acknowledges that "many diffusion scholars have conceptualised the diffusion process as one-way persuasion" and that "most past diffusion studies have been based upon a linear model of communication defined as the process by which messages are transferred from a source to a receiver."

The metaphor appropriate to human communication as a biological and social process is the dance ritual metaphor – it can be understood as conversation – particularly its Latin roots, con versare, meaning to turn together. If you are interested in pursuing the alternatives to the main stream view as part of your on-going inquiry then I recommend our book. I have worked closely with policy makers in the UK and Australia who have been responsible for developing ‘knowledge transfer’ strategies. I now know that initially they were not aware of what it was they did when they did what they did! Put simply they acted out of their tradition of understanding - as if knowledge could be transferred from one person to another!
Water managing in Europe
Let me return to water governance and managing in Europe and our work with ‘social learning’. My approach is necessarily broad brush – but the detail can be followed up if you wish to. In presenting this I am inviting you to consider how European experience might enhance Australia’s water governance – policies and practice.

Synopsis of the SLIM story
From 2000 to 2004 I was fortunate to be the coordinator of, as well as a principle researcher in, the EU-funded Fifth framework project called SLIM. SLIM stands for ‘social learning for the sustainable use and management of water at catchment scale’- the project was interdisciplinary, with a focus on what we call interactive social research and involved partners from UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. The rationale for the SLIM research came originally from the perception of water catchments as ‘‘bundles’’ of natural resources and ecological services whose sustainable management requires the continuous balancing and integration of social, economic and ecological factors in a complex process of societal transformation. Historically water policy – and most environmental policy for that matter have been based on a limited set of governance mechanisms. Take for example this quote from an EU Environment Commissioner at the time we were doing our research. The SLIM position was that a mainstream understanding of water catchments and governance mechanisms built on a fixed form of knowledge, independent of its historical and social construction, was no longer sufficient. If we were to accept catchments as exemplifying a resource dilemma characterised by interdependencies, complexity, uncertainty, conflict, multiple stakeholders, multiple perspectives then the traditional policy prescriptions and the ‘transfer’ model of scientific research seemed ill-equipped to deal with their on going managing – as an active, co-evolutionary process. In contrast social learning is built on a different understanding of how knowledge and action are constructed.

In starting our research we recognised that for ‘social learning’ to become a complementary policy instrument in water governance its successful conduct needed to be much better understood as a conceptual framework, an operational principle, a policy instrument and a process of systemic change. Subsequent SLIM case studies provide evidence for achieving the transformation of individual and institutional behaviour, at large social scale, with significant technical results, through deliberate investment in multi-stakeholder learning processes or social learning. We have found the idea of an orchestra creating a satisfying performance to be a good metaphor for what we mean by social learning. Creating a satisfying performance involves the interactions of many factors and is also the product of the relationship between orchestra and audience.

I do not have time here today to elaborate on the evidence base- this can be found in the final report, case studies and a set of policy briefings all of which can be downloaded from the web. There is also a recent special edition of Environmental Science and Policy devoted to SLIM.
The SLIM heuristic
Based on our research evidence we argue that social learning can be invested in as a policy option that is different from, but complementary to, the mainstream approaches. But to invest in it also requires capacity building and an appreciation of those factors that most enhance, or constrain social learning – or in terms of our metaphor an effective performance. Our case studies provide empirical evidence for the importance of five variables that through their interactions constrain or enhance social learning. These have been incorporated into a heuristic to depict how the transformation of a complex situation in terms of changes in understandings and practices depend on the systemic interaction of:

(i) the history of the situation;

(ii) stakeholding

(iii) facilitation

(iv) institution and policies

(v) ecological constraints – a proxy really for epistemology as it concerns the knowledge claims for what constitutes an improvement.

Let me briefly mention one of these variables – institutions and practices.

The WFD – a conducive policy?
At the same time as we were engaged with SLIM the European Water Framework Directive – I will refer to it as the WFD – was being introduced. It is a legally-binding document which requires all European Union Member States to implement water management measures to achieve ‘good overall quality’ of European water bodies by 2015 with another cycle to operate from 2015 to 2027. It results from a joint decision and policy-making process in which the European Parliament played an unusually significant part. It was strengthened by a powerful pro-ecology coalition of environmental NGOs. The policy development process was controversial with the formal text produced in October 2000. The text refers to water as both a fundamental human right and as a commodity – what is perhaps most significant is that the historical basis of managing water has been changed. In the past it was largely the province of chemists and engineers – water quality was the key variable, whereas now it is the ecological status that has to be managed. With this change it has taken many in Europe some time to realise that the WFD is as much a land management directive as it is a water directive – this is what happens when water’s roll in ecological processes is recognised. Will it be successful? It is too early to tell.

Continuing this systemic inquiry?
I have been back in Australia on sabbatical leave now for a year. What have I gleaned in this time that I would urge you to consider if you were to continue this systemic inquiry?

Firstly I would urge you to admit Janus to the Pantheon of public sector gods if for no other reason than the excesses of New Public Management with its narrow focus on efficiency at the expense of effectiveness. In a forthcoming paper Kathy MacDermott argues that ‘within the broader system change, the new disciplines of NPM … reshape relations between government and the public service in less expected ways. Within them lies the capacity to shift the norm away from ‘frank and fearless’ behaviour and towards unquestioning responsiveness to the spoken and unspoken wishes of the government of the day’. She asks ‘whether some of the disciplines of NPM may have been internalised in ways which facilitated the problematic events of recent times, for which both the public service itself, governments and the state of Australian democracy, have recently been criticised.’

Her overall conclusion is that the reforms of NPM have been internalised by the public service in ways that leave it much less protected against pressures towards politicisation than it has been over its earlier history.

So a question must be is the current temple of Australian public administration a conducive environment for Janus? Consider this question in the light of the variables in the SLIM heuristic? From my perspective there is much to be revealed from such an inquiry. I have already outlined elsewhere why I consider the so-called $10 billion water plan to be inadequate for the circumstances – I will say more about this on Friday. It is also clear to me that Federalism is not working – in the sense of creating an effective performance to deal with situations of complexity. But this is not only an Australian phenomenon – I see similar issues arising in the UK, South Africa and Australia in relation to water policy and practice – something that needs to be changed for effective climate change adaptation. I suggest, above all else, policy and practice need to be developed in ways that are systemically desirable and culturally feasible. It is worth considering

  • An Australian WFD?
  • Looking beyond Australia for institutional arrangements– changing the boundary of the water managing system of interest (I will say more about this on Friday)
  • Addressing capacity and community of practice issues across the whole country i.e common understandings and practices that allow greater flexibility in the movement of staff between states and territories.
  • Policies that promote innovations – especially on the demand side – and that may be useful to other countries
  • Join up social and technological/institutional policies and practice

Based on my European experience amongst policy makers in Brussels I suggest a major trap is the failure to see a policy as a social technology that mediates actions in context specific ways – just as a hammer makes little sense without considering the hammerer, the hammered and the overall setting and performance especially the interpretation of purpose on the part of the hammerer!

Australia is crying out for a national rural development strategy attuned to future livelihood possibilities. In this and in the on-going managing of water and other natural resource issues social learning is worthy of purposeful investment as a new but complementary policy paradigm. We need to ask is current performance adequate? And is it supported by systems thinking and practice capability – systems practitioners engaged in everyday managing but capable of working with complexity, acknowledging multiple perspectives, assembling multiple partial views through active processes of building stakeholding and, in the process, surfacing assumptions and traps?

I leave you with the following two questions:

What might be revealed if you used the SLIM heuristic to explore what it is that you do when you do what you do


As administrators how might you transform your own situation through social learning?

If pursued systemically these questions should aid your engagement with complexity but remember complexity is as much a property of our understandascope as it is the world we see. Because of this more is needed – we need second order change and second order understanding – we need to understand our understandings. Thank you and good luck with your inquiries.

[1] understood as concerted action by multiple stakeholders in situations of complexity and uncertainty

I also made a short presentation as part of the water panel on the final day.