Using information processing theory to build a smarter government

Koski_WorkmanChris Koski and
Samuel Workman

Many people assume that the main problem faced by governments is an information deficit. However, the opposite is true. A surfeit of information exists and institutions have a hard time managing it.  At the same time, all the information that exists in defining problems may be insufficient. Institutions need to develop a capacity to seek out better quality information too.

In our recent research article in the special issue Practical Lessons from Policy Theories, we analyse studies of national and subnational information processing and policy change to identify potential bottlenecks of information and patterns of policy feedback, identifying lessons from this literature. 

All governments try to solve the information processing dilemma by delegating authority to smaller subgroups. Delegation increases the information processing capacity of governments by involving more actors to attend to narrower issues. The delegation of authority is ultimately a delegation of attention. Delegation solves the information ‘flow’ problem, but also introduces new ‘filters’.  Thus, even narrowly focused smaller organizations face limitations in their capacity to search and are subject to similar forces as the governments which created them – filters for the deluge of information and capacity limitations for information seeking.

Governments eventually face trade-offs between the gains made from delegating decision-making to smaller subgroups and the losses associated with coordinating the information generated by those subgroups. The paradox of delegation is that, in creating more specialized units to enhance attention to problems, governments create institutions with narrow interests that are resistant to change.  Governments, despite their best efforts, get stuck in the same ruts as when the delegation process started: status quo bias that doesn’t adjust with change problem conditions.

Governments can respond in two, imperfect, ways to increasing ossification: they can 1) attempt to bring subgovernments back into the fold through centralization or 2) double-down on delegation.  Centralization threatens to resurrect old problems related to attention limitations in governments, while delegation may simply create many more stultified ruts.  We’re not suggesting that one of these paths is better or worse than the other; but, rather, we suggest three guidelines when altering institutional design to better adapt the flow of information.

Designing Institutions to Seek and Sort Information: Adaptive Governance

  • Design institutions not just to attend to problems, but to be specifically information seeking. At the same time, we’d suggest greater coordination of institutional actions – enhance communication across delegated units but also better feedback mechanisms to overarching institutions.
  • Institutions need to listen to the signals that their delegated units give them. When delegated institutions come to similar conclusions regarding similar problems, these are key signals to broader policymaking bodies.  Listening to signals from multiple delegated units allows for expertise to shine.  At the same time, disharmony across delegated units on the same problems is a good indicator of disharmony in information search.
  • We propose ‘issue bundling’ which allows for issues to be less tied up by monolithic problem definitions. Policymaking institutions ought to formally direct delegated institutions to look at the same problem relying upon different expertise.  This allows for multiple subsystems  – e.g. Agriculture, Transportation, or Environmental Protection – to assist institutional decision-making by sorting issue specific information– e.g. Climate Change –.

Our proposed solutions do solve fundamental problems of information processing in terms of sorting and seeking information – such problems are fundamental to humans and human-created organizations.  However, while governments may be predisposed to prioritize decisions over information, we are optimistic that our recommendations can facilitate better informed policy in the future.

You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Koski, Chris; Workman, Samuel,  Drawing practical lessons from punctuated equilibrium theoryPolicy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557318X15230061413778

View the special issue full table of contents here. The whole issue is free to access until 31 May.

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