Navigating Complexity in Policy Implementation

Living reference work entry


It has become common to invoke the idea of complexity – understood as intricate and with multiple moving parts – in contemporary policy debates. What do we understand by complexity? What insights does complexity offer public managers? What are the different types of complexities that policy designers and public managers navigate? This chapter explores these questions focusing on the implementation stage of the policy process. The chapter argues that complexity in the implementation stage can be understood at three nested levels. At the macro level, it manifests in the constraints that the policy environment imposes on public managers; at the meso level, it relates to the implementation architecture and the different types of policy tools used; and at the micro level, it relates to calibrating or making changes to these tools. Two arguments are developed. The first is that a nested understanding of complexity can help inform the debate on the specific challenges public managers confront. Second, in the short to medium term, public managers are more likely to address the complexities at the meso and micro levels and will need capabilities to manage or work around those at the macro level.


Policy complexity Policy implementation Policy tools Policy capacity Public managers 



Many thanks to Kris Hartely, Helen Dickinson, and Mike Howlett for constructive comments and suggestion on this chapter.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Crawford School of Public Policy; The School of Politics and International RelationsThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Helen Dickinson
    • 1
  1. 1.University of New South WalesCanberraAustralia

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