Applying complexity theory to contracting out

As part of the early stages of her Master of Philosophy, Judy Oakden was encouraged by her supervisors to attend the Operations Research Society Conference, in Lancaster UK, in September 2018. 

As this was the 60th Conference of the Operations Research Society, the organising committee worked hard to attract a wide range of systems thinkers from all over the world. The conference was well supported, and many of the leading systems thinkers, including Gerald Midgely, Mike Jackson, and Peter Checkland, attended. Lancaster University, a university with strong links to Operations Research, hosted the conference.

Operations research uses systems thinking in different ways from the evaluation community. Therefore, attending the conference gave Judy an insight into the broader systems field. 

Judy has long had an interest in the Soft Systems Methodology work of Peter Checkland. One of the conference highlights was getting a chance to meet and talk with him about his applied use of rich pictures in Soft Systems Methodology.

At the point that Judy went to the conference, she had reviewed the literature for her thesis. Developing a presentation helped her form the early stages of her Master of Philosophy research.

Judy presented some of the issues she found in the literature related to contracting out for complex public health and social services. She found evidence in the literature that contracts can:

  • be too tightly specified
  • be for too short time-frames
  • support superficial relationships
  • assume linear cause and effect between contracts and the desired outcome, rather than allowing for the actual messiness of the real world
  • be taxing on providers in terms of project oversight and reporting
  • focus tightly on accountability with little learning opportunity. 

Judy identified five ideas from complexity theory that may explain difficulties in contracting. These were: path dependence, emergence, attractors, self-organising and feedback.

She sought input from presentation attendees to further progress her research. She found there was general agreement about the concepts of path dependence, emergence, self-organising and feedback. However, she discovered that attractors were a less clearly defined and more contested concept.