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Systems Thinking, Big Data and Public Policy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
June 8, 2023

Systems thinking and big data analysis are two fundamental tools in the formulation of public policies due to their potential to provide a more comprehensive and evidence-based understanding of the problems and challenges that a society faces.

Systems thinking is important in the formulation of public policies because it allows for a holistic and integrated approach to addressing the complex challenges and issues that a society faces. According to Ilona Kickbusch and David Gleicher, “Addressing wicked problems requires a high level of systems thinking. If there is a single lesson to be drawn from the first decade of the 21st century, it is that surprise, instability and extraordinary change will continue to be regular features of our lives.”

Public policies often involve multiple stakeholders, interrelated factors and unintended consequences, which require a deep understanding of how the system as a whole operates. Systems thinking enables policymakers to identify the key factors that influence a problem and how they relate to each other, enabling them to develop solutions that more effectively address the issues. Instead of trying to address a problem in isolation, systems thinking considers the problem as part of a whole and seeks solutions that address the root causes.

Additionally, systems thinking helps policymakers anticipate the unintended consequences of their decisions and actions. By understanding how different components of the system interact, they can predict the possible side effects of a policy in other areas. This can help avoid decisions that have unintended consequences.

On the other hand, big data can play a crucial role in the formulation of public policies because it enables the collection of large volumes of data from diverse sources, providing a more comprehensive view of social problems. Traditionally, information was obtained through surveys and limited samples, which may not accurately represent the diversity and complexity of society. With big data, it is possible to analyze data in real-time and on a large scale, providing a more accurate and up-to-date picture of the problems and their causes.

Big data analysis allows for the identification of hidden patterns and trends in the data that may not be evident through traditional approaches. Advanced algorithms and data analysis techniques can uncover correlations, relationships and causality between variables, providing valuable insights into the dynamics and complexity of social problems. These patterns and trends can help understand the interconnections and mutual influences of different factors, enabling a deeper understanding of the problems and the formulation of more effective policies.

By enabling the segmentation of the population into more specific groups, big data facilitates the customization of interventions and policies. By analyzing large datasets, individual characteristics and needs can be identified, allowing for the design of more targeted and tailored policies for different groups in society. This can improve the effectiveness of public policies by addressing issues more precisely and efficiently.

Big data provides an opportunity for a more precise and rigorous evaluation of the impact of public policies. By collecting and analyzing real-time data, continuous monitoring of results and adjustments based on findings can be achieved. This enables evidence-based decision-making and continuous improvement of policies as new data is obtained and areas for improvement are identified.

The combination of systems thinking and big data analysis allows policymakers to have a more holistic and accurate understanding of problems and potential solutions. It helps evaluate the potential impact of different policies, identify interdependencies and unintended effects and continuously adjust and improve policies based on data and results.

Despite the potential of systems thinking and big data, this can be challenging for policymakers because the literature is still recent and often highly theoretical. There is growing interest in how systems thinking concepts and tools can aid decision and policy making in government and the public sector. However, areas where progress can be made include a conceptual shift among public officials and policy makers, the impacts of decision-making styles and organizational cultures on the adoption of systems thinking (See: Implementation of Systems Thinking in Public Policy: A Systematic Review).

Although there have been important advances, more research is required on the possibilities of big data in the public sector. Basanta Thapa mentions that “the existing literature tends to offer forecasts rather than findings.” The challenge here is that big data is present from the stage of identification and definition of the social problem that public policy seeks to solve, helping to detail its possible causes and consequences.

Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico.  He is co-founder of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS).  He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS+ Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT.  He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias

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