5
Nov 12

The Fitness Landscape (The Foundations for the New Public Administration Theory)

In a GovLoop posting, I describe how the fitness landscape from complexity economic theory can be used for government projects. It can also be used for designing and managing government agencies.

========================================

A book that I constantly recommend is Beinhocker's The Origin of Wealth for two reasons. First, Beinhocker demonstrates how traditional economics is inadequate for explaining today's economic systems. Second, he introduces complexity economics which is still developing but does a better job in describing how real-world economies work and how people behave economically. To illustrate, let me give a simplified description of his core theory.

You start with a business plan. A business plan describes how you will meld physical technologies and social technologies to create a business that competes in an economy. Physical technologies (PT) are “methods and designs for transforming matter, energy, and information from one state into another in pursuit of a goal or goals.” Social technologies (ST) are the “methods and designs for organizing people in pursuit of a goal or goals.” Your business then competes with other businesses on the economic fitness landscape.

The best way to think of a fitness landscape is to imagine a square piece of land with hills and valleys. Businesses want to climb as high as they can on the highest hills because the higher you are up on a fitness landscape the more successful you are. Conversely, if you are in a deep valley you are failing in being fit on that landscape. Various factors determine fitness such as profitability, customer relations, and so on.

So, what does this have to do with Gov 2.0 or government in general? Replace business plan with plan and business with either project or program. You still have PT and ST but instead of building a business to compete on an economic fitness landscape, you are building a project or program to compete in government agency fitness landscape or policy area fitness landscape. This may seem rather abstract but this new perspective helps to consider fundamental questions about your Gov 2.0 project.

1. What are the factors that determine fitness in your landscape? Is it citizen engagement, cost-efficiency, and ease of implementation? Or is it increased collaboration and knowledge generation? Understanding what is success will help to decide what the goal or goals should be for your Gov 2.0 project.
2. What PT an ST will the project need? How will these technologies blend together? Are there barriers to a good blending? Will the proposed blend fulfill the fitness factors more effectively than other blends?
3. How do I know if the Gov 2.0 project is climbing hills in the fitness landscape? How do I find the highest peaks in the fitness landscape and keep the Gov 2.0 project from being stranded on a smaller peak? How do I keep the Gov 2.0 project out of the valleys?
4. What do I do if the fitness landscape shifts? How do I decide when the fitness landscape shifts and what can I do to move the Gov 2.0 project so it stays on the peaks?

Another concept from Beinhocker that is also useful to government agencies is the idea of social architecture. Social architecture determines how adaptable an organization is and is composed of three factors:
1. Behaviors of individuals in the organization (Mental Models)
2. Structures and processes that align people and resources in pursuit of the organization's goals.
3. The emergent culture that arises from people's interactions with each other and their environment.
A robust social architecture gives the organization better abilities to find the shifts in the fitness landscape and to better adapt to the shifts.

The advantages of the fitness landscape perspective is that it starts the dialogue on what the goals of the Gov 2.0 project are and how the current environment will help or hinder reaching those goals. It also requires an honest assessment of the agency's abilities to understand their current environment and to adapt when the environment changes. Beinhocker's book is dense with ideas but he writes in a approachable style and his last chapter is especially vital in understanding government's role in complexity economics.

Reference:

Beinhocker, E.D. (2006). The origin of wealth: The radical remaking of economics and what it means for business and society. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Leave a Reply