Are resilience, robustness, agility and improvisation in policymaking all they’re cracked up to be?

Perri 6Perri 6
Professor in Public Management
Queen Mary University of London

Summary of article

After crises and disasters, pundits regularly write articles and books calling for more resilience in policymaking, and the Covid-19 pandemic has been an especially rich opportunity for advocates of resilience (e.g., Business project management jargon about ‘agility’ gets used to urge politicians and their advisers to do their policymaking more fluidly in response to constant change. In 2016, even the Cabinet Office joined in the fun, issuing guidance on agility in open policymaking. Some writers now advocate greater use of improvisation in policymaking. Others argue for ways of working among policymakers which can lead to policy designs that can withstand shocks – or robustness. Long advocated by the RAND Corporation as way of handling uncertainty, academics too are now urging greater efforts to pursue robustness

All good things, of course. Who would argue for ways of making decisions in government that don’t take into account the possibility of shocks and crises and mistakes, that don’t enable recovery, or that stand in the way of finding creative solutions?

But maybe all good things don’t go together. It’s long been recognised that robustness and resilience might be alternatives. But, depending on how we define these terms, perhaps all four styles can conflict with other.

To understand how and why they could conflict, we need to step back from the idea that it is policies themselves which are robust, resilient, agile or improvisatory. Rather, it is the styles of decision-making among policy-makers which drive the choice of whether to pursue policies that might work through thick and thin, to focus on recovery after setbacks, to pursue fluidity or to respond to difficulties with whatever comes to hand. These are styles of policymaking, and there is an extensive literature on styles of policymaking going back at least to Jeremy Richardson’s early work on that concept forty years ago, if not longer.

My recent article in Policy & Politics develops fresh theory to explain how and why policymakers might develop one of these styles. I argue that, when we understand why policymakers reach for these styles, it becomes much easier to understand the tensions between them. These styles are, I argue, cultivated among ministers and their advisers by the effect of the informal social relations and social ordering among them. Social processes, driven by the ways in which we are organised, tend to limit the number of styles that we can deploy at any one time. To understand these processes, I draw upon some classical work in anthropology which can be adapted to understand decision-making at the heart of government.

This anthropological approach can, my article shows, also help us to understand the weaknesses and limitations, respectively, of resilience, robustness, agility and improvisation. The forces of informal social organisation also explain how each of these styles decay, generating as many fresh anomalies as it can solve.

It is time to stop romanticising resilience, robustness, agility and improvisation. All good things do not go together. To understand the limits of these styles, we need to pay more attention to informal social ordering among policymakers, and the dynamics it unleashes.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics

Perri6. (2022) Robust, resilient, agile and improvisatory styles in policymaking: the social organisation of anomaly, risk and policy decay Policy and Politics DOI:

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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